Thursday, May 28, 2009

Your Prayers, Our Magic--Do They Always Help?

It's a common argument among Pagans--Witches in particular--when conversing with monotheists to say something like, "What you call prayer, we call spells," or words to that effect.

No doubt we think ours are better. No one is testing them, but there have been a number of studies attempting to quantify the effects of "intercessory prayer," usually meaning prayer for people facing health crises.

Some seemed to show that such prayer helped, results that were seized upon by Christians.

But the results of one are not so simplistic, reports Christianity Today magazine. (I urge you to read the whole thing.)

The study received some attention at the time [three years ago], but seemed to have escaped the notice of many Christians, probably because of its surprising—and for Christians, disturbing—conclusions.
. . . .

The result: The group [of surgical patients] whose members knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post-operative complications than those whose members were unsure if they were receiving prayer. The knowledge that they were being prayed for by a special group of intercessors seemed to have a negative effect on their health.

Where does that leave people who say that you should get permission before "working" for anyone?

The authors then turn theological:

Our prayers are nothing at all like magical incantations [!]. Our God bears no resemblance to a vending machine. The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God's blessings. In other words, God seems to have granted favor without regard to either the quantity or even the quality of the prayers.

And then they have to jump through more theological hoops to answer the obvious question, "Then why pray at all?"

Obviously, that is not our theology. Pagans do not expect the gods to conform to our standards of either/or logic.

But try reading the article and substituting our language for its authors'. How would you respond?

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Anonymous Hth said...

I've been interested in this study from the beginning; the authors are right, it doesn't present a major theological challenge to Christianity, which has always recognized that people don't get what they pray for in many cases, but it *will* be a significant challenge to paganism, if we choose to deal with it. Neopagans get a ton of mileage out of the idea that ours is a "working" religion -- that we are ruled not by dogma (or theology) but by "what works," and even that we can prove the efficacy of our religion by the measurable results of our spells and rituals. The fact that pagans are, as a group, no more "blessed" than followers of any other religion -- our lives no more full of love, our health no more unimpeachable, our jobs and finances no more secure -- is, IMO, the elephant in the living room. I'm not suggesting that we abandon a theology of blessings, but I am suggesting that we have to stop propogating this notion that a well-worked spell is any more infallible than an earnest prayer, and most certainly the notion that our spirituality is superior because it "works."

6:23 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

No one is saying that our magick is infallible. I can report that magick has indeed worked very well in my own life and experience. I'm not saying that every spell and blessing has worked 100% of the time' but it does work more often than not and every sapell seems to have a positive impact on my life overall.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Magic works.
Just what the magic the person is using is the question.

If its say a ryhme and hope. Then the magic of positive thought might help you along. And if you've got the psychic omph & training that might be enough.

Chances are, the magic is going to be truly karmic. Pin follish hopes that the gods will make you more specialer than the next person, and you will usually pay the price for the magics of superstition and foolhardiness.

Learn the real magic (which is way more than a ritual of sucking upto imaginary friends of any type) and then the world opens up.


9:23 PM  
Anonymous Sage said...

Hmm. These comments are very good. I am being forced to really think about what it means if prayers do not really benefit.
I like the idea that god is actually a force of equanimity (my buddhist influence), but I also see how that could open up the doors to even greater understanding as a pagan.
Truthfully, I have never been comfortable with the idea of a Goddess and or God. It just has never psychologically worked for me or been something I could buy into, so to speak.
I see paganism as a path to enlightenment. If enlightenment is an actual state of being than there would not be a one true path to get there, only similar stages of development or understanding, regardless of a religion or spiritual ideology.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

Although magic is not infallible, neither is medicine. If we are right about magic and its efficacy, it should show measurable benefits, just as good medicine does.

I don't know that a prayer study is a direct analogy to a magic study (should one exist).

The Christian theology of prayer, as I understand it, is complex. Prayer-as-magic, which is what praying for healing is often about, is problematic because it seeks to control God's will. We Pagans do magic to gain intended results, not to let "Thy will, not mine, be done."

If the prayer is problematic, that can effect the outcome. If the prayer is attached to secondary goals (he will get better AND accept Jesus in his heart) that could effect the outcome.

After over 25 years of doing magic, it would be very difficult to convince me that magic does not work. Yes, I've observed what Hth has observed; we don't appear to be richer or happier (although, again, this hasn't been studied empirically), but I've also observed miracles.

If a well-conducted study like this one was done on magic, I admit it would be emotionally difficult for me. I hope I would be able to take it in anyway.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Yewtree said...

Let's assume for a moment that prayers are just a passive form of magic.

In which case, a well-constructed intercessory prayer should not include any negative instructions (e.g. "let him not be ill" should be rephrased as "let him be well") because the subconscious doesn't understand a negation - try obeying the command "don't think of a purple monkey" if you don't believe me).

The intercessory prayer should also not be attached to any secondary goals, as Deborah said. It would also work better if they charged a talisman for the patient (oh wait, that'd be a "magic incantation").

It would also help if they learnt some basic notions of energy, then their hands-on healing would be more effective (I know of a few Christians who do hands-on healing and have learnt about energy etc.)

So, on the whole, on thinking about it, prayer isn't magic - it's just putting a vague ill-formed request out there and not being sufficiently specific about the outcome. It's like putting in a support request to the IT dept; you've got to be careful what you ask for, because your request will be taken literally.

10:31 AM  
Anonymous Elysia said...

This reminds me of a question I asked of a panel discussing non-dualism at PantheaCon (Thorn, Lon Milo and Christopher were all on this panel) but in retrospect didn’t phrase exactly right. Basically, here is my beef – as you wrote in your post, we often say that our spells are like prayers. (Except: we use corresponding herbs, stones, colors etc. to power them; we use personal power/energy to send them out into the universe; we address them to a specific deity who may help in that realm, or to a deity with whom we have a close relationship; blah blah blah.)

However, the problem with this is that we (most Pagans?) see deity as IMMANENT, not transcendent; so who exactly are we praying to? When people call on a deity when doing a spell, why are they doing so? We ARE the magic, we already have it within ourselves. (This is why I have a problem with hard polytheism.) In a quantum universe, we somehow have the ability to change outcomes, and this comes from our own efforts and mindsets, not from a deity on high.

So you see, the question (and the fundamental difference between doing a study on Christian prayer vs. magic) is whether prayers solemnly requesting a deity’s help are better or worse than working to create change in accordance with your will – the “traditional” (Crowley) definition of magic. If, for example, we found that prayer to a distant deity didn’t work, yet active collaboration with the universe did work, we’d find out the value of a person’s attitude and actions regarding whether one should accept one’s fate passively, or meet it actively. (And that might explain why patients who told they were being prayed for actually did worse – because they felt they had taken the passive seat, that others were interceding for them, instead of doing their own work. Just a thought!)

Anyway, very interesting discussion, thanks for this post.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Alan Joel said...

In my experience, magic always works on the level of the magician using the magic. Personal power and level of being have a lot to do with the power of the magic. Also, conflicting desires can interfere with magic bring certain results. Magic always works, but do we get in the way with conflicting desires, lack of attention to daily practices, or doubt?

7:22 AM  

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