I’ve long had an ethical problem with petitionary prayer.

This came up last night as I was talking with my son on the phone. He recently saw a bunch of people gathered around a filling station, presumably Christians, fervently praying for gas prices to go down.

Let’s ignore the essential silliness of this endeavor. Let’s assume, for just a moment, that this prayer could actually work. What are these people actually asking for?

I’m reasonably sure they are, in addition to devout, praying Christians, also Fox News disciples. So they doubtless have a fundamental misconception of why pump prices are rising. If my conversation with my neighbor is any indication, these people think there is a cabal of conspirators somewhere that involves President Obama, the Liberal Media, the Environmentalists, Foreigners, and Satan, all with their collective hand on the Global Gas Price Knob, slowly turning up the price of gasoline to fulfill some sinister Liberal Agenda.

So their prayer is that God will smite these Evil Liberals and stop them from messing up our nice, orderly, suburban, conservative Christian world.

Of course, that isn’t what’s actually happening. What’s happening is that production costs of oil are rising as the cheap, easy wells are depleted and the expensive, difficult wells come on-line to replace them. Oil companies are doing everything in their power (both ethically and unethically) to keep prices low without sacrificing profits: if prices rise too much, competing technologies become profitable, or people change their lifestyles, or both — any of which results in a catastrophic drop in demand for oil, which will overnight turn Big Oil into Little Oil. They know this — they aren’t stupid, at least not about the oil business. But those production costs keep rising….

So what these people are really praying is that God will refill the cheap, easy oil wells, since that’s the only way gas prices will come down and stay down.

I don’t think this is such a good idea. We have a pretty good idea of how God filled them in the first place — at least in broad outline — and if He does that again in our lifetime, it will certainly drive down property values.

So what these people want is for God to magically refill the cheap, easy oil wells. Preferably in the middle of the night, like the shoemaker’s elves, so that He doesn’t inconvenience our busy, suburban schedules too much.

Is this really God that they pray to? A magical elf that runs around at night doing chores for us in return for a little bowing and scraping?

This kind of prayer is simply irresponsible wishful thinking.

Now the universal escape clause for this kind of irresponsible prayer is “…if it be thy Will, oh Lord.” That’s how you can make boneheaded requests of God without worrying about the outcome. Fair enough, I suppose, except that what is the point of asking for things that you already know — or at least ought to know — are not God’s will?

That’s like me saying to my wife, “Honey, I want you to cook for me, clean house for me, support me financially, rub my feet, find me mistresses — pretty ones, mind you — and bring me a beer while you’re at it. If it be thy Will, oh Wife.”

Sounds to me like a really good way to get smote.

I don’t mean to disparage prayer — honest prayer. But that is a rather different thing.

Teo Bishop had an interesting take on prayer in his blog entry Letting Go of the Gun. His example strikes me as a valid place for petitionary prayer — when we’ve come to a point where action is no longer possible or fruitful. It can only be reached when we’ve searched our hearts and souls and find there really is nothing else we can or should do. In these cases, it doesn’t matter if the prayer is efficacious or not — we pray for our own benefit, to make peace with the fact that we cannot help.

There is also a deeper form of petitionary prayer, which I think is essentially equivalent to what ceremonial magicians, witches, and druids would call thaumaturgy or high magick. I know prayer groups that engage in this kind of prayer.

Here’s the essential difference between what they do and what the circle around the filling station does: they take responsibility for their prayers. Their prayers are an act of mystical co-creation every bit as demanding as grabbing a shovel and digging a hole, or traveling to a distant land to care for lepers. In fact, their prayers may lead them to do these very things. They will have to learn to use a shovel and develop the muscles and the calluses — they will have to raise money and learn to run a leper clinic.

They will have to learn how the real world works, so that they can pray effectively.

When they pray this way, they take on a moral burden for the consequences. There is no escape clause. They set out to change the existing order, and if they succeed, they have to live with the outcome.

I have been asked by Christian acquaintances in mass-emailings to “pray for Mrs. X” where Mrs. X is a person I don’t know and have never met. It often comes with no indication of what the problem is, just that Mrs. X “needs our prayers.” Sometimes, the request indicates a family-dynamic or behavioral problem: abusive husband, financial troubles, addiction — something to which solutions are straightforward but require a great deal of courage and effort on the part of Mrs. X.

My first test is this: do I feel moved to learn Mrs. X’s address, travel to her home, knock on her door, and deliver a pearl of advice that I believe would solve her problem? Would I expect a good outcome from the attempt?

The answer to that question is almost always, “Of course not!” But if I’m not moved to do such a simple thing to help her out, then why would I try to interfere covertly through magick, whatever I call it?

I do say “almost always.” A couple of years ago, a friend of Marta’s (whom I had never met) was diagnosed with abdominal cancer, and prognosis was mixed. After she decided to do the surgery and chemo, I felt moved to share my own cancer story with her. I wrote a long e-mail with some pearls of advice based on my experience. Nearly a year later, after a successful outcome and complete remission, she let me know how helpful my letter had been. This was a case where I might well have prayed or done magick for her, but the practical advice seemed (and apparently was) much more direct and useful.

Why pray for the hungry if you can feed them?

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