Brief Comment on Intercessory Prayer

I got into an exchange with someone who insisted that prayer offers people something “inside”–even if it’s not true that it actually changes anything in the real world. Ironically, I agree, which is why I think it’s horrible. Here’s an analogy inspired by the dialog:

Intercessory Prayer, a hypothetical: I put an ad in the local paper saying I am retired, but have experience and contacts in the business world and can help people find work. They need only drive out to my house–an hour outside the city–and bring me their resume and talk to me about their work history for 30 minutes. I don’t charge anyone a dime.

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. In fact, I was a bus driver all my life and have no real business experience at all.

Am I a kind, caring helpful person offering a benefit to people? Or an asshole who wastes their time? Remember–it only takes 2.5 hours of their time, and they’re still looking for work on their own. But am I helpful or a dick?

In the context of the church–organized religion–they do charge for this “service.” And in addition, there is a story in the news just about daily of parents who didn’t seek medical help for their children because their churches teach that god will heal if it’s His will–and a doctor is a demonstration of a lack of faith in god.

So, let’s redo the scenario above to say I tell people to give me 10% of their net worth if they want me to take their case, and that in some cases I tell them that I won’t help them unless they cease all other independent job hunting.

Again–helping or hurting? Kind or asshole?

Is this really hard?

Next time, pray to recognize confirmation bias

A viewer wrote to say that he is a former Christian, but became a Jew rather than an atheist because of an experience he had as a teenager. He asked: “Please tell me if the following story should be proof to me that there is a God and what you would think if it happened to YOU.”

One day when I was a Christian I was praying to God and saying, “God please let me meet somebody to witness to today”. Later that day a man just walked up to me out of nowhere and said, “If your religion goes bad do you go bad with it?” I said “No” and he said “Thank you” and walked off. I had always wondered if there is no God, how my prayers got answered when nobody heard me praying that day in the car since I was praying under my breath and the doors were closed.

I replied:

It’s an interesting story, but does not impress me as an outside observer as much as it obviously impressed you when you were in the situation.

People in general are notoriously bad at calculating the odds of an event occurring. Events which strike us as “unlikely” are actually fairly commonplace, especially because we are able to invent patterns and attach significance to a very wide range of possible events. For example, the request you made was extremely unspecific, and could have been fulfilled by all kinds of different things happening over a long period of time. You said that the person came up to you “later that day,” which doesn’t make it nearly as interesting if, say, you had prayed and somebody had shown up immediately. And “meet somebody to witness to today” isn’t all that specific either — you might well have tried harder to push some kind of religious topic into any conversation you had that day, and seen it as scoring a hit. The witnessing you actually did in the end (you were asked a question and you gave a one-syllable answer) doesn’t strike me as especially significant, although I’m sure it struck you that way at the time.

People are also very susceptible to confirmation bias. Stuff happens every day that does not seem significant, but when it matches some kind of expectation we have, we tend to notice that one event and attach special importance to it, while ignoring all the other things that didn’t fit our conception of something unusual or miraculous. For instance: in your story you didn’t specify if that was the only time in your young life that you ever prayed for anything, but I bet it wasn’t. And I’ll bet that you didn’t waste too much thought on all the times you tossed out a casual prayer and nothing happened.

If you wanted to do a real test of the power of faith, you shouldn’t need to say “God, please cause [some fairly commonplace event] to happen before [some fairly long span of time] has elapsed.” You ought to be able to say: “God, please let a bird with blue spots and a crooked beak fly past my window within the next ten seconds.” If something that specific happened in that small time span, that would be interesting. If you could repeat this demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer multiple times consistently, that would be really interesting.

As it is, the impression I get from your story was “I prayed for something just barely unusual to happen eventually, and on this one occasion it did.” If that’s the main reason why you’re a theist today, then I think I can say with confidence that I could have experienced an identical occurrence and still not acquire your faith.