The value of prayer

I just saw a thread on my Facebook feed. A friend’s relative is in the hospital being treated for an injury. This friend was requesting prayers for the relative. Many people obliged with comments such as

Praying [the person] heals quickly!
Praying for a speedy recovery & complete healing
Praying [the person’s] healing is quick and as painless as God can make it.

Why would God pay more attention to healing someone if there are a lot of prayers coming in? Doesn’t God care equally about all his children? I mean, does He take a vote to decide these things? Are prayers like God’s “Like” buttons? I just don’t understand the whole “pray for someone” thing.

More importantly, if God has a plan, and that plan includes a person getting injured, why would prayers alone make God change the plan?

To let an all-knowing, all-loving and all-caring deity know that you want him to love and/or care about a particular person even more, as far as I can tell.

Why would God’s plans be linear? Mine aren’t, and I’m a lot less capable of tracking branches than He is.

Not to be too obvious, but the power of prayer is for the person praying, not for the object of the prayer. It’s to keep that person in their minds so they don’t just slip away unnoticed. I believe that’s why “you’re in my thoughts” is considered a passable substitute to “you’re in my prayers” for the non-religious.

That doesn’t explain why you should be able to get She/He/It to changes those plans through prayer, though.

Although I doubt there’s any objectively coherent rational theological explanation for seeking prayers for the afflicted, my guess is that there’s a pretty solid psychological explanation for it.

Namely, it’s a conscious counterweight to the natural and base human tendency to avoid people in trouble because their suffering makes us feel bad and also we don’t want to catch it. When we have a defined mental/spiritual practice, such as prayer, for keeping the sufferers in our thoughts in a compassionate and sympathetic way, we are more likely to maintain our emotional bonds with them and keep our group more socially secure and stable.

Prayers are often for the person praying, not the recipient.
They’ll make the person praying feel like they’re helping in some way if there’s nothing else they can do (or even if there is something they can do).
It may help the recipient if they hear people are pulling for them and give them hope/strength/motivation.
As far as a request for divine intervention it doesn’t do squat.

To Czarcasm.

I think you’re missing the concept of “non-linear plan”. Which is normal, most people don’t get it.

When explaining how to make a plan, people say things along the lines of (simplified):

  1. figure where you are,
  2. figure where you want to be,
  3. figure a line from (1) to (2). Ta-da, that’s your plan.

A non-linear plan includes multiple branches, multiple paths. Ideally, all of them will lead to the desired result. For example, let’s say I want to go from my house in Dos Hermanas to my work in Seville. There are three paths which are roughly equivalent in terms of physical length; all begin the same way. I can decide which specific one to take depending on which traffic conditions I perceive, and on the warnings posted by Traffic (highway signs) or listed on the radio. The plan includes three distinct possibilities from the beginning - taking one path or another is not a change of plans, because when I left the house my plan wasn’t “I’ll take this path” but “I’ll take one of these paths”. All three paths were part of the plan.

A non-linear plan could include having people pray for someone. Depending on how many people pray, or how devoutly, or on whether one specific person prays (for example, someone the wounded person has offended greatly and who was still angry at him but considers their well-being more important than his own anger), one thing or another happens - but which things could happen, and how do they come to pass, was predetermined, was part of the plan. Prayer has not changed the plan, it has chosen the path among those which already were part of the plan.

I think that a (Small? Large?) part of it that allows someone to look as if they are doing something to help the afflicted while avoiding the unpleasantness of an actual physical and/or financial intercession.

The idea that humans can magically influence the world is a huge part of religion, both currently and historically. The idea is that if you do certain things you can influence the outcome of things that are otherwise out of your control. And honestly, if religions didn’t promise this then I seriously doubt anybody would bother with them. So in essence prayer is a magic spell intended to cause real outcomes. That’s always been a large part of what prayer is.

Prayer can have a positive benefit. I had an incredibly severe health problem about a decade ago and the doctors didn’t give me one chance in hell of living. My mother started a prayer vigil in my home home town the night that I went into ICU. It wasn’t anything supernatural. I just knew that lots of people cared I couldn’t let them down. I recovered fully against all expectations because I was determined to. Mental state versus health is a very real phenomenon and prayers are one very good way of expressing that.

I agree with you; prayer, and many other things about religion, create social cohesiveness (I just heard a podcast featuring one researcher who refers to “costly signaling” to signal the willingness to make a sacrifice to be able to belong to a group). But if you ask the people who are praying, this is not the reason they will give. In fact, people have attempted to perform objective studies to show that prayer really matters, but I’ve never seen anything to indicate that is anything but a placebo effect.

I fully understand this argument, which seems to be a verbose way of saying “Yes, the results seem to be random…but that very randomness is also part of God’s Plan!

It also lets people signify a desire to do something to help, even if there’s nothing practical that they can actually do, which is another way of maintaining those bonds and securing the group.

How does this resolve the fundamental contradiction between the notion of an omniscient and omnipotent god and the relevance of prayer to such a god?

Hey, placebos that “work” are some of the most effective, powerful, safe, inexpensive forms of treatment known to medicine. I don’t want people deliberately deceived into thinking that a particular phenomenon is scientifically verified when it isn’t, but I have no problem with people drawing emotional strength and healing from experiences or concepts that are, at least as far as science can determine, ultimately imaginary.

If your god’s plan will prevail no matter what you do, then why do?

I’m still trying to figure out the difference between a prayer and a spell. shrug

The ethical and pragmatic issues with placebo are complicated. With medical interventions, the placebo component may sometimes dominate. But any false belief that a placebo treatment is effective may lead people to decline truly effective treatment.

There’s a parallel with prayer. Historically, a major reason for the practice of prayer was psychological, as a way to avoid despair when we are helpless in the face of adversity. But in the modern world, we are often far less helpless. Prayer can then become a serious problem when the false notion that prayer is effective lead some devout believers to decline medical treatment altogether; or, notoriously, to evade addressing difficult issues such as gun massacres.