Praying for Christopher Hitchens

David Brog:

“When I heard the sad news that Christopher Hitchens had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, I did what I typically do upon learning of someone’s illness: I said a silent prayer for his recovery. Call it habit, hope, or faith — but this is what I do. While I could not disagree more with this fierce critic of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I also recognize that Hitchens is not a bad man. He’s never employed or condoned violence in furtherance of his atheism. I can wish for him physical health and personal happiness even while I fight with everything I’ve got against what he stands for. Our hearts should be big enough to rise above the petty.”

Indeed.

Some things that we can specifically pray for:

– that Hitchens might see that the Gospel enables us to grieve over our enemies calamities (Proverbs 24:17) and seek their relief (Exodus 23:4).
– that his pain would lead not to worldly sorrow, but a Godly sorrow that both brings repentance and leads to his salvation (2 Cor 7:10).
– that God’s grace would be shown to be greater than his sinfulness (Romans 5:15-21) and can rescue even those who are objects of His wrath (Ephesians 2:3).
– that he might see that the Gospel does not gloss over sin, nor see justice as unimportant (Romans 3:26), but frees us from harbouring thoughts of retaliation (1 Peter 2:23b) and enables us to truly love even those who hurt the church (Matt 5:44).
– that he might be snatched from the fire (Jude 23) for God’s salvation is better than destruction (Psalm 30:9, Isaiah 38:18).

33 replies
  1. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Why will protesting the effectiveness of this study to gauge the power of intercessory prayer render the protestors worldview contrived and ridiculous? It seems to me any atheist could object just as equally as a theist could as to how the study (or the manner of prayer itself that was studied) was conducted.

  2. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Well, the study was extremely well done. It was a HUGE study, and was even done by a christian-leaning organization. But, given that it is a model experiment, any protests have to be ridiculous, like 'god was hiding' or 'science is faulty'.But what do YOU make of the experiment, Stuart? Do you not agree that it is an undeniable example of the failure of prayer?

  3. C. Combe
    C. Combe says:

    The Harvard Medical School release a press release on the study which is more informative than the Scientific American article. The article is entitled, "Largest Study of Third-Party Prayer Suggests Such Prayer Not Effective In Reducing Complications Following Heart Surgery." This summary raises concerns for the "undeniable example of the failure of prayer" idea. Though, I do not believe such concerns will shake OriginalSimon's faith. He will continue to believe the study proves, once and for all, that prayer has failed. I guess we all need to have faith in something, eh?

  4. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Other Simon, You asked my opinion in what the study suggests. I was already thinking along the lines of quantity of prayer versus quality of prayer. Also, that the group that reportedly recieved no prayer may well have recieved unreported prayer from friends and family. That link to Harvard's report confirms my suspicions. "…The study did not endeavor, either, to compare the efficacy of one prayer form over another or to assess participants' understanding of the nature and purpose of prayer. Finally, it was not our objective to discover whether prayers from one religious group work better than prayers from another," said co-author Father Dean Marek, Director, Chaplain Services, Mayo Clinic. And "Investigators did not ask patients to have their friends and families withhold prayers, and assumed that many patients prayed for themselves during the study."Also;"One caveat is that with so many individuals receiving prayer from friends and family, as well as personal prayer, it may be impossible to disentangle the effects of study prayer from background prayer," said co-author Manoj Jain (MD), Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee."The findings, however, could well be due to the study limitations." Jeffery A. Dusek PhD of Harvard Medical School and Mind/Body Medical Institute You say any person who questions the study's conclusions on the efficacy of prayer renders their worldview ridiculous. While at least two co-authors of the study do just that (quotes provides above). I think rather your statement is ridiculous and an example of "religiously" motivated bias.My advise to you is to get a real religion that encourages and motivates you to do some decent thinking, unstead if the sloppy thinking you troll out all too often.

  5. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    C. Combe,

    "undeniable example of the failure of prayer"

    Do you deny that this study is an example of the failure of prayer?I certainly DO predict that, except for self-psychology use, prayer will – if investigated – prove to be useless. But I don't need faith. I simply use evidence and common sense. And, though it may be common, it is not sense(ible) to believe that prayer works.

  6. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Stuart,It follows from your objections that you are claiming that:- Prayer quality will produce measurable effects.- The religion of prayer will produce measurable effects- Backgroud prayer is as powerful as extra prayer.I would be willing to bet a LOT of money against the above claims. Do you seriously believe that these claims are true, Stuart? I find it hard to believe that in this day and age anyone would actually claim that these things are measurably true. Even my christian friends wouldn't be so stupid – though they'd then go on and resort to nonsense to still explain why prayer works.I would be very interested in you letting me know of an experiment on prayer which you think would come up with a positive result Stuart.

    You say any person who questions the study's conclusions

    What are the study's conclusions, Stuart?I do agree that my straight thinking, and limiting myself to the evidence, does look rather simple in comparison to the contortions that you often throw up.

  7. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Original Simon,"Do you deny that this study is an example of the failure of prayer?"I do. The affirmative is a triumph of inductive reasoning (italics indicate sarcasm).Apropos, you'll need to get yourself a Disqus profile and login if you want your comments to go up immediately. Otherwise they'll only appear when I "approve" them.

  8. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Other SImon,you say,

    It follows from your objections that you are claiming that:- Prayer quality will produce measurable effects.- The religion of prayer will produce measurable effects- Backgroud prayer is as powerful as extra prayer.

    Actually none of these follow from my comments above, and I claim none of them.What is "the religion of prayer"?

    I would be very interested in you letting me know of an experiment on prayer which you think would come up with a positive result Stuart.

    I don't think any scientific or statistical study would yield results. God is not a magic wand, or a force of nature. He is a singular personal being, who responds to faith yet acts according to his own purposes. But, I can think of an experiment that would possibly yield positive results. I would mean you'd have to contact and follow around my one of my friends, either for about a week or on a specific day when they set out purposefully to go and pray for people. I can give you their names and contact details in private conversation if you like.

    What are the study's conclusions, Stuart?

    At most, from the reports of the study I have read, the conclusion is that a particular group of people, at a particular time and place, yield a negative result for a particular form of prayer being measurably more efficacious.

    I do agree that my straight thinking, and limiting myself to the evidence, does look rather simple in comparison to the contortions that you often throw up.

    On the contrary, it is you with the fuzzy thinking, who goes beyond the evidence, and contort other peoples arguments. Reminder: Get a Disqus profile.

  9. CCombe
    CCombe says:

    I neither deny nor accept such a concept. It would be unreasonable to do so on the basis of this study. The study focused on one form of prayer and did not control for family and friends who may or may not have been praying for the individuals. These two factors do not negate the conclusions of the study, but they do raise concerns for the broader conclusion which you have drawn and includes with the one qualification for "self-psychology." If you would take the time to set aside your dogma, review the study and its conclusions objectively, and apply a little reason, then it would be easy for you to see why your broader conclusion based upon this study is flawed. Though, I don't suspect you will do as such because your dogma is much too important to you.

  10. CCombe
    CCombe says:

    I do agree that my straight thinking, and limiting myself to the evidence, does look rather simple in comparison to the contortions that you often throw up.

    Except that, you have deluded yourself into believing you are limiting yourself to evidence, when I have shown that you're make leaps which are not necessarily justified by the evidence.

  11. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    At most, from the reports of the study I have read, the conclusion is that a particular group of people, at a particular time and place, yield a negative result for a particular form of prayer being measurably more efficacious.

    Hmmmn. And perhaps all of the laws of the universe only apply when we're looking. I think the study speaks for itself, it is you that applies inductive reasoning only when it suits.

    I don't think any scientific or statistical study would yield results. God is not a magic wand, or a force of nature. He is a singular personal being, who responds to faith yet acts according to his own purposes. But, I can think of an experiment that would possibly yield positive results. I would mean you'd have to contact and follow around my one of my friends, either for about a week or on a specific day when they set out purposefully to go and pray for people. I can give you their names and contact details in private conversation if you like.

    How convenient! How seriously do you take an astrologer who says that astrology can't be tested? Exactly.And that is not an experiment. Perhaps this is why you beleive strange things.

  12. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Other Simon,Fatuous remarks are not welcome here. Take your troll-ship elsewhere. And get a Disqus login.

  13. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    At the end of the day, the best data that mankind has on prayer tells us that praying for Christopher Hitchens will do absitively nothing.

  14. CCombe
    CCombe says:

    And perhaps all of the laws of the universe only apply when we're looking. I think the study speaks for itself, it is you that applies inductive reasoning only when it suits.

    Your confidence in your a priori conclusion is clouding your judgment. You are attempting to take one study, which is limited in scope, and drawing a grand, sweeping, and broad conclusion not even supported by the authors.

    "One caveat is that with so many individuals receiving prayer from friends and family, as well as personal prayer, it may be impossible to disentangle the effects of study prayer from background prayer," said co-author Manoj Jain, Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.

    There really is no way around the problem. Quite simply, you're wrong for drawing the conclusion you have based on the study in question.

  15. CCombe
    CCombe says:

    At the end of the day, the best data that mankind has on prayer tells us that praying for Christopher Hitchens will do absitively nothing.

    Cool story, bro.

  16. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    I wonder if the Simons could give us a summary of how they understand the mechanics of prayer to work in the Christian worldview.Let's say there's a situation where A and B are possible outcomes. Let's also say we know that the probabilities of either A or B occurring are both 0.5. And a Christian prays for B. Let's also say this test is repeated in a highly controlled fashion, many times.What do the Simons believe we should expect to happen in this situation, if Christianity were true? What is the relationship they see between the persons praying, God, and the various outcomes?

  17. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    I wonder if the Simons could give us a summary of how they understand the mechanics of prayer to work in the Christian worldview.

    I believe that any real phenomenon is testable; this is a worldview built up from empirical observation.No doubt, though, that your notions of prayer conveniently avoid being testable, like any other quackery.Now to get a disqus profile…..

  18. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    "One caveat is that with so many individuals receiving prayer from friends and family, as well as personal prayer, it may be impossible to disentangle the effects of study prayer from background prayer," said co-author Manoj Jain, Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.

    This background prayer is perfectly accounted for. Any study has this 'problem', but it is not a problem, because the backgound prayer would be the same for both groups. Essentially, the people who received personal prayer received more prayer, and so should have had differing outcomes. And if you believe that the amount of prayer does not matter, and it is simply whether people are prayed for at all, then why don't we see christian people – who are prayed for – fare significantly better in recovery than non-christian people – who aren't prayed for?

  19. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Essentially, the people who received personal prayer received more prayer, and so should have had differing outcomes.

    Why does more prayer result in differing outcomes?

    And if you believe that the amount of prayer does not matter, and it is simply whether people are prayed for at all, then why don't we see christian people – who are prayed for – fare significantly better in recovery than non-christian people – who aren't prayed for?

    If the background prayer is the same for "both groups," then why would there be a significant difference?

  20. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Simon, you didn't answer my question at all. You've said that any "real" phenomenon is testable. Well, okay. But that's a completely separate issue. Maybe we can come to that later, but what I asked was: what do you believe Christians should expect to happen in the situation I described? How do you understand the relationship between the persons praying, God, and the various outcomes, in Christianity?Without articulating to us how you understand prayer to work in Christianity, it's really impossible to even comment on why you believe this study proves that there is "no point" praying, and that the prayers in the study "failed" (your words).What I'm getting at is: is it possible that what you believe the purpose and mechanism of prayer to be in Christianity is not, in fact, what the Bible defines the purpose and mechanism of prayer to be?

  21. originalsimon
    originalsimon says:

    Simon, you didn't answer my question at all. You've said that any "real" phenomenon is testable. Well, okay. But that's a completely separate issue.

    It is not separate at all!!!!! Unless you are trying to say that prayer is imaginary; a point which I would be quite willing to agree with.

    what do you believe Christians should expect to happen in the situation I described? How do you understand the relationship between the persons praying, God, and the various outcomes, in Christianity?

    I imagine that some christians will be so out of touch with reality that they will expect prayer to come out with a positive result in such a study. Others may be more cautious.The details of the mechanisms are not important to me, just as the details of astrology mechanics are not important to you (and me!). We both know that, whatever the astrologer comes up with, it will conveniently avoid testability and yet still confirm what the astrologer wants to believe. The same is true with prayer. Neither are a real phenomenon.

    What I'm getting at is: is it possible that what you believe the purpose and mechanism of prayer to be in Christianity is not, in fact, what the Bible defines the purpose and mechanism of prayer to be?

    I am quite confident that you could weave a biblical 'definition' of prayer right out of observability. In which case prayer is imaginary (or indistinguishable from the imaginary). My beliefs on what prayer is and its purpose within christianity is nill. The only thing I believe about it is that if it is a real phenomenon, it will be testable; study-able.

  22. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    It is not separate at all!!!!! Unless you are trying to say that prayer is imaginary; a point which I would be quite willing to agree with.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "imaginary". But I assume you're trying to say that, in a situation where A and B are equally likely, prayer for B should at least increase the probability of B occurring.The problem is, that's just your assumption. It's not a Christian assumption. So you're attacking a strawman:1. Take Simon's personal belief about what prayer should do.2. Show that prayer doesn't do it.3. Assume that Christianity and Simon are in agreement (they aren't).4. ???5. Profit!

    The details of the mechanisms are not important to me just as the details of astrology mechanics are not important to you

    On the contrary—if I were planning to refute astrology, then its mechanics would be of great importance to me. How can I even begin to argue that astrology is false if I have no conception of how it is supposed to work? I can't just set up whatever I happen to assume about astrology and attack that. That would be intellectually dishonest.

    We both know that, whatever the astrologer comes up with, it will conveniently avoid testability and yet still confirm what the astrologer wants to believe.

    I'm sorry, but much as I despise astrology, I don't have such a low view of people's basic intelligence as you do. Even assuming that astrology avoids testability, I'm not going to beg the question by calling that "convenient". There may be very good reasons, from an astrological point of view, that astrology's mechanics cannot be tested in a scientific way.I'm also not going to assume that "whatever the astrologer comes up with" will confirm what he wants to believe. That, again, would impose my own view onto astrology. For example, getting back to prayer, the purpose of prayer is not primarily apologetic. Prayer is something done in faith—there is no expectation of one outcome or another necessarily taking place. When prayer is answered, it can virtually always be ascribed by the skeptic to coincidence. When prayer is not answered, it can virtually always be used by the skeptic as evidence that prayer has no effect. And even in the life of a Christian, it is often easy to overlook answered prayer, and to feel frustrated by unanswered prayer (or prayer where the answer is "no"). Yet, often when looking back over the years, a Christian can see a clear path defined by answered and unanswered prayers. A cumulative series that is obvious to the individual, yet has little value as an apologetic tool, precisely because it is a personal experience. Presumably you agree that internal experiences are valid reasons for believing something, even if they have no persuasive power over anyone else?

    The same is true with prayer. Neither are a real phenomenon.

    You seem to be presupposing that all phenomena operate by natural laws. So, if I pray, then there will be some kind of probabilistic law which inexorably causes some result. But prayer isn't mechanical. God isn't some kind of power reserve that can be invoked to change the world in a certain way. He's a person, and prayer is a mechanism of communication with him.Moreover, it's not as if God reactively changes the future in response to requests in the present. He knows the future. The future is certain to him. If A is going to happen instead of B, then praying for B will have no effect at all. (That doesn't mean it's pointless, since prayer doesn't have just the single purpose of bringing about events we desire.) On the other hand, if B is going to happen instead of A, then it's possible that our praying for B is itself a reason for B's occurring. In his eternal plan, God may have determined to have us pray for B, so that he could cause B to occur in answer to that prayer.But it doesn't seem as if your attitude to prayer even takes these basic nuances into account. It seems to us like you just have your particular talking points you want to get off, rather than actually trying to understand and engage with what Christians believe. But this blog isn't for people who want to score cheap points. It's for people who want to engage in thoughtful dialog about issues they see as of great importance. So I'm going to ask you to either make an effort to do that, or leave.

    The only thing I believe about it is that if it is a real phenomenon, it will be testable; study-able.

    A belief which must be shared by Christianity if you are going to use it to disprove Christianity. So by your own admission, your argument is completely misdirected.

  23. originalsimon
    originalsimon says:

    On the contrary—if I were planning to refute astrology, then its mechanics would be of great importance to me. How can I even begin to argue that astrology is false if I have no conception of how it is supposed to work?

    No, you do not need this. All you need are its claims. Then you can determine whether those claims correspond to reality.

    The problem is, that's just your assumption. It's not a Christian assumption. So you're attacking a strawman:

    And I agree with you that the christian claims about prayer may be different. But I suspect that they will be indistinguishable from null. And I think it is an empirically verified fact that where there is null there is nothing.

    I'm sorry, but much as I despise astrology, I don't have such a low view of people's basic intelligence as you do. Even assuming that astrology avoids testability, I'm not going to beg the question by calling that "convenient". There may be very good reasons, from an astrological point of view, that astrology's mechanics cannot be tested in a scientific way.

    This is very confused. First of all, why do you despise astrology – especially as you don't have a low opinon of astrologers' intelligence? And if they are intelligent, and you are intelligent, and both of your views have reasons for being untestable, surely their views are as valid as yours. But, of course, you despise astrology, and I'm willing to bet that you have reasons for this. Reasons which you will claim can be readily observed; reasons which you will claim stand up under testing. And the astrologer denies these reasons. You do not respect astrologers' intelligence.

    When prayer is answered, it can virtually always be ascribed by the skeptic to coincidence.

    Haha, you have it completely backwards Bnonn. Respectable experiments show that it IS coincidence. Rather, despite these experiments – such as the prayer experiment we're discussing – any believer can attribute answered or unanswered prayer as 'answered'.

    Yet, often when looking back over the years, a Christian can see a clear path defined by answered and unanswered prayers.

    I am not old, but I, too, can look at my life's path and see a meaningful progression. I can often see how and why things have happened – things which, at the time, seemed random. I don't attribute these things to prayer, of course. I can see the reasons for those things in hindsight, where a christian, I guess, just attributes them to god.

    Presumably you agree that internal experiences are valid reasons for believing something, even if they have no persuasive power over anyone else?

    I think if they have no persuasive power over someone else we're in trouble. Ever the empiricist, I believe that common internal experiences are valid reasons for believing things.

    You seem to be presupposing that all phenomena operate by natural laws. So, if I pray, then there will be some kind of probabilistic law which inexorably causes some result. But prayer isn't mechanical. God isn't some kind of power reserve that can be invoked to change the world in a certain way. He's a person, and prayer is a mechanism of communication with him.

    Then congratulations, the validity of your prayer is indistinguishable from hindu prayer.

    In his eternal plan, God may have determined to have us pray for B, so that he could cause B to occur in answer to that prayer.

    Or there could be no god, and that is why answers to prayer are indistinguishable from null.

    A belief which must be shared by Christianity if you are going to use it to disprove Christianity. So by your own admission, your argument is completely misdirected.

    I am not trying to disprove christianity. I am trying to illustrate how the efficacy of prayer is indistinguishable from not-prayer. The study I forwarded earlier is a great example. And the arguments people have presented here as to why prayer is not testable are also great examples. And if prayer is indistinguishable from not-prayer…

  24. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    No, you do not need this. All you need are its claims. Then you can determine whether those claims correspond to reality.

    All right, working on this assumption, what claims does Christianity make which are refuted by this study on prayer?

    This is very confused. First of all, why do you despise astrology – especially as you don't have a low opinon of astrologers' intelligence? And if they are intelligent, and you are intelligent, and both of your views have reasons for being untestable, surely their views are as valid as yours.But, of course, you despise astrology, and I'm willing to bet that you have reasons for this. Reasons which you will claim can be readily observed; reasons which you will claim stand up under testing. And the astrologer denies these reasons. You do not respect astrologers' intelligence.

    1. I disbelieve astrology because I believe Christianity, and astrology countervenes the Christian worldview. I have no considered opinion on whether astrology may have some basis in fact. I suspect it is nothing but charlatanry; but I am aware that demonic power can play a hand in many things that people like yourself consider pure superstition. In either case, I am not so stupid or so cynical to think that people believe in astrology for no reasons whatsoever. I may not have a high view of their reasons, and I may consider them foolish, irrational, and even wicked—but if I were to set about engaging them in rational dialogue to persuade them of their error, I would not begin by doing everything I could to alienate them, such as presupposing the worst about their beliefs and their motivations, imputing my own opinions and prejudices to them, and refusing to interact thoughtfully with their actual view.

    I think if they have no persuasive power over someone else we're in trouble. Ever the empiricist, I believe that common internal experiences are valid reasons for believing things.

    Why is it necessary that an experience have persuasive power? Are you saying that experiences with no persuasive power, or experiences which are not common to other people, are in some way invalidated for the subject as well?

    Then congratulations, the validity of your prayer is indistinguishable from hindu prayer.

    By empirical testing, perhaps so. I don't discount the possibility. But so what?

    Or there could be no god, and that is why answers to prayer are indistinguishable from null.

    Given no other prior presuppositions, it would appear that either is equally likely, yes. Which is why your entrance into this thread triumphantly announcing that studies "prove" prayer doesn't work was really quite ridiculous. All you were doing was begging the question to start with.

    I am not trying to disprove christianity. I am trying to illustrate how the efficacy of prayer is indistinguishable from not-prayer.

    Perhaps from an empirical point of view it is. I'm not arguing one way or the other, though problems with the study you cite have been brought to your attention. But since the original post was directed towards Christians, who presuppose the efficacy of prayer, and do not use empirical tests to distinguish that efficacy, your comments here seem entirely inappropriate.

  25. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    No, you do not need this. All you need are its claims. Then you can determine whether those claims correspond to reality. Exactly, to refute Astrology you need to understand what Astrologers actually claim. Similarly to refute a theological position or argument you need to understand what the position actually asserts and what the arguments for it actually are.

  26. CCombe
    CCombe says:

    Matt,Be on guard. The "courtier's reply" round is being loaded into the breech. It will be followed up by the "word salad" grenade. :) (Sorry, too much time reading PZ Myers' blog. The place where logic, reason, and sanity go to die.)

  27. Matt_flannagan
    Matt_flannagan says:

    C Crombie, I can refute whatever is leveled at me my simply stating that ham sandwhiches are not made of sand. Its not like my interlocutor can complain that he never claimed this or said anything that entailed it, that would assume I have to respond to what he actually said and the Courtiers reply apparently shows that is false.

  28. originalsimon
    originalsimon says:

    ….what claims does Christianity make which are refuted by this study on prayer?

    Exactly, to refute Astrology you need to understand what Astrologers actually claim. Similarly to refute a theological position or argument you need to understand what the position actually asserts and what the arguments for it actually are.

    I take your points. What about Mattew 7:7. Does "Ask and it will be given to you" actually mean "Ask and it might be given to you; either way is an answer to prayer" ? This is an evasion of testability – all that is needed is a will to believe and the willing willingly throw rationality out the window. An astrologer evades testability like this, too, and none of us take them seriously because of this.

  29. originalsimon
    originalsimon says:

    I remember making a response post, but it never appeared. I'm not going to bother doing another, sorry.

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