An Analogy for Intercessory Prayer October 12, 2010

An Analogy for Intercessory Prayer

Let’s say you’re someone who wants to help people looking for jobs. You can’t directly give them one, but you think you have some relevant experience and contacts you can share, so you make an open offer: Come visit me, bring your résumé, tell me your work history, and I’ll try to help you out.

TracieH at The Atheist Experience extends this further (first emphasis mine):

You are a reporter and you’d like to do a story on me and the inspirational work I’m doing. I meet with you and you ask me how it works. How do I help these people find work? I say, “Oh, after the applicants leave, I throw their resumes and vitaes in the trash. I don’t actually do anything to help them find work. I just like knowing that I provide them with a sense of hope and inspiration that things might improve for them — since they believe I can help them.

Sounds like a waste of time for everyone involved, even though the advice-giver thought he was helping out.

Is this any different from praying over someone else’s problems?

Or, to put it more bluntly:

Am I a kind, caring helpful person offering a benefit to people? Or an asshole who wastes their time?

They might think you’ve helped them out, but you’ve offered nothing but a placebo.

It’s a waste of time and their problems don’t go away because of your “help.” So stop filling out the prayer cards in the pews, making prayer requests at websites, and telling the church that someone in your family has a life-threatening disorder. They can’t help. If you’re lucky, they might empathize, but it won’t change the prognosis.

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  • It’s easy to see what you are getting at. However, as frustrating as it is for the argument, these prayer type people have been encouraged to use prayer as a type of hug or kiss or condolence. How do you learn how to behave if it isn’t by learning what is well received and what isn’t?

    I do not dig prayer and I do not want people praying for me. But people are various levels of intelligent and focus their critical thinking inconsistently upon themselves. Are they really going to throw out a thing that has been firmly established as a comfort? To some people it probably is a comfort. To me it is a waste of time.

  • NewEnglandBob

    That is a wonderful analogy. Much of religion is wasteful, from the buildings used mostly for praying, the hours wasted in those building and the money wasted on paying a hierarchy (sometimes) to minister to the sheep congregants.

  • While I am in agreement with the analogy, I have two points of criticism. First, is that the believers do not think they are just “throwing resumes away.” It’s more like they are forwarding them to an email address that they believe and hope will reach someone with great influence but from whom they have never received an email in response. Yes, it’s most likely a waste of time, but they see enough potential that it’s worth both of their time to go through with it.

    Second, the prayer cards and such are for more than just prayers. It’s a way for people to let others in their community know what they are going through so they can receive practical help: conversation, meals, house cleaning, etc. Yes, you and I believe the prayer part is unnecessary, but the religious community is one of the likeliest ways for people to find that kind of support and I wouldn’t go around urging people to forgo it without offering them an alternative.

  • Tim

    Prayer is a hypocritical selfish act. It’s only functional purpose is for self-therapy. It makes the person praying feel like they’re doing something. When in fact it makes absolutely no sense. Christianity says that their god has a plan. Well, if god’s plan is to take your uncle’s life while he’s in the ICU at the hospital, then your prayers for his well-being are against “god’s plan” and he’s not going to listen to you anyway. What’s he supposed to think? God-“Oh! Since his nephew is praying to me to save his life, well, OK. I’ll change my grand plan because little Timmy is praying for him.” Rubbish!!!

  • Note that the placebo effect is a real effect. There is a mind-body connection. Drug companies actually have to work hard to get their drugs to do better than the placebo effect.

    That being said, the only advantage to prayer is if the person doesn’t give up hope and keeps trying. The key point is that they keep trying and don’t give up. Motivations to keep trying can come from many places.

    Prayer can work against you if you stop trying because you think God will do the work for you.

    P.S. my motivations come from places other than prayer.

  • A placebo at least does some good.

  • Luther

    The atheist is worse:

    1) Adding unnecessary paper to our environment

    2) Taking time from the job seeker

    3) Providing a false hope and promise. Where the person praying may be recognized by many job seekers as not doing anything that will actually help.

    4) The atheist is immoral, not mistaken.

  • Joan

    To me, praying for someone is sort of like wishing someone a happy birthday. I’m not throwing them a party or buying them a gift, I’m just saying, “Hey, happy birthday!” That seems to make people smile. My Facebook friends often request prayers when they’re going through hard times. I can’t bring myself to actually pray, because, for me, that would be hypocritical, but I can say, “You’re in my thoughts, I’m hoping for the best,” which is really the same thing. And that seems to make people feel better — just reading or hearing some sympathetic words.

  • Tim

    In my mother’s church which I am unfortunate enough to attend periodically, they do a little segment called “Joys and Concerns.” Aside from “Children’s Corner,” this is the part of the service that infuriates me the most. It’s great news to hear that so-and-so’s cancer is in remission or JimBo’s wife if home from the hospital, but I can’t stand it when they “thank God” for their health and recovery. They should be thanking the doctors and nurses, and modern medicine in general. Admittedly, they might not be able to compartmentalize hard enough to admit that medicine solves anything; they spend all their other time hindering progress with their faith-based bullshit, blocking women’s healthcare, and in the case of those crazies in Oregon and Colorado, eschewing medical care altogether, often at the expense of defenseless young lives.

  • anthrosciguy

    That’s one of the things that annoyed me most about the recent Glee episode. The “friends” who went against the boy’s wishes and prayed at his comatose father claimed they just wanted to “help”. The gay kid is supposed to look bad because he didn’t want their “help”. But what “help” was that? doing some of the family’s chores, or making some food, while the family is at the hospital? no, they just stood around and prayed.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Palaverer, it’s funny that you said that you were in agreement with the analogy when the points you raised show just how flawed the analogy is.

    I’m sorry, Mr. Mehta, but not only is this unfriendly, but it’s nonsensical. It’s as if you’ve drunk a bit of the same Kool-Aid as the “Teh Thiests Iz Stoopid” crowd, and it’s giving you the same clouded judgment that it has.

  • Rick

    Here is an article regarding a famous study that was initiated and funded by the Templeton Foundation.

    Not only was prayer proven ineffective, but a surprise finding was that patients who knew they were being prayed for actually fared worse than the patients who didn’t know they were being prayed for!

    Maybe prayer has a placebo effect on certain people under the right circumstances, but it can also be a bit unsettling for the person that has people praying for them!

  • ff42

    @Jeff P “Note that the placebo effect is a real effect. There is a mind-body connection. Drug companies actually have to work hard to get their drugs to do better than the placebo effect. ”

    My understanding is that placebos do NOT affect disease, regrow tissue, etc., rather they occasionally help with pain management.

  • Stephen P


    First, is that the believers do not think they are just “throwing resumes away.” It’s more like they are forwarding them to an email address that they believe and hope will reach someone with great influence but from whom they have never received an email in response.

    Sort of, yes. But it’s also someone who has already read the resumes and who has good reasons for having not done anything with them. (Since God only has good reasons. Apparently.)

  • Mike

    Not that I am in favor of prayer, but the analogy is invalid. In the resume case, the job seeker has had to invest time and effort for no actual return. In the case of prayer, it is only the pray-er who has wasted their time.

  • MadScutter


    That is actually the point of the analogy.

    1) Applicant takes time to prepare and request help. Said request goes directly to the circular file.

    2) Pray-er takes time and effort (?) to make a request to a non-existent entity.

    2.1) If you assume that the prayers are being brokered through a priest or confessor, then you even have the symmetry of an extra, pointless intermediary.

  • Luciferadi

    If God is omnipotent, why don’t people pray for their severed limbs to grow back? Or to be young again? Or for their deceased loved ones to come back to life?

    Those types of questions were posed originally by someone other than me. I find them interesting. Is there a subconscious acceptance among the religious that God can’t solve all our problems? Won’t? Or is it something they’ve rationalized?

  • Mike


    It is? I don’t see anywhere in the original post where the person being prayed over has requested help of the person who is praying or has invested any time or effort in seeking assistance from said person.

    Perhaps it is implied? My impression was that someone simply started praying to “help” someone else, whether with or without their knowledge, and that was what was being objected to. In that case, your number 1 does not exist in the prayer example.

  • madscutter


    I see what you are saying now. Clearly we had somewhat different interpretations. I still feel that the analogy is valid if you look at it in terms of outcomes. Suppose it were restated as: X has a need. Z performs (or claims to perform) some action intended to help X. Z’s help is, by its nature, only able to provide the illusion of help. It makes X feel better, but provides no material benefit.

  • Ry

    They won’t stop filling out the prayer request cards, because I think, as humans, we crave the attention that a hardship brings.

  • Mike


    But I think the outcomes are different in the two examples. In the first example, X performs actions in expectation of Z’s help. In the second, that investment is missing. At least in the way I read the post. I find that to be a critical distinction and to result in two very different outcomes.

    I’d buy it if it was called a good half-analogy… 😉

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