Monday, June 23, 2008

Quick Thought on Prayer and the Occult

There are two issues that we have touched upon on this blog, concerning which I had small insights today. Neither as it stands really merits its own post; the ideas can be deduced from the previous posts on the subjects. However, I would like to explicitly state them. Perhaps they will grow into posts of their own, and perhaps commenters will have something to add or criticize. They are works in progress, and represent unfinished lines of thought. Either way, they are presented here as kernels, for future expansion.

Previously, we have discussed different aspects of prayer. The question has been raised, why is it that we find no empirical evidence that prayer is effecacious? Perusing the internet for scientific studies done on the subject, one is not struck by any evidence that those who are prayed for heal more quickly than others.

First of all, the assumption that prayer should lead to immediate amelioration is dismissed: God knows what is best, and He does not need to take orders from us. Furthermore, to assume that we know what is best physically and spiritually for a subject is hubris. What we really want when we petition God is the best for our subject; complaining when it isn't what we think it should be is short-sighted.

Prayer gives us a way to commune with God; it is the language of our relationship, and, ultimately, we pray to become sensitized to the suffering around us, and to learn what is important to us. When we pray, we refocus our thoughts on what is important. We change ourselves as well, it is true, and demonstrate that the subject of our prayer matters to us, and is part of our circle of importance. These elements are new realities that grow from prayer, and help perhaps to change the lot of the subject.

However, even from a completely empirical perspective, the studies I have seen turn prayer into a formulaic, uninspired repetition of chosen words. It is a far cry from the prayer that religious people engage in usually. However, even if the study adequately demonstrated what it set out to, it would not change the deeper and more holistic benefits of prayer.


I have written about the Rambam's view of שדים or demons. It is clear that he dismissed the possibility of dark forces that can do evil without God's permission. I just wish to add to this that this is different than accepting the existence of, say, viruses. Viruses are a natural phenomenon that have no will of their own, and they function exactly as God intended, never straying from His will. The idea of supernatural evil entities with the ability to act independently is unacceptable to the Rambam. It is this belief that free will could have been given to a creature other than man that he finds so repulsive. The world is an ordered one, which we approach in an honest way. Only Man has free will. That there be an entity to fear that mankind must take into account other than God -- this borders on idolatry.