I found an entertaining article about prayer at, of all places, Slate.com today. You’ll get an instant sense of the piece when you read the headline:
The author got off to a very bad start when she wrote,
Do Christians think praying can help a dead person get into heaven?
Not exactly. All Christians believe that only God can determine whether a person belongs in heaven or in hell.
BZZZZZZZ! The only belief I’ve ever found Christians agreeing about is that their god exists.* Some Christians hold the traditional Heaven-As-Bliss and Hell-As-Torment beliefs with which we’re familiar. Some Christians don’t believe in hell at all, although they hold out hope that, by hook or by crook, or god’s grace, they’ll end up in heaven. Other Christians believe that everyone will go to heaven. Other Christians believe that hell is a state of annihilation rather than a place. Given these varied beliefs about hell (and I’ve probably missed some), it’s silly to state that “all” Christians believe anything about it.
The author digs herself a deeper hole with this bit:
Entreaties on behalf of the deceased can’t sway God from what’s right, but post-mortem praying does have other uses. For one, Catholics, who unlike Protestants believe in purgatory, think prayer helps speed the transition from this celestial waiting room to heaven.* Furthermore, Christian doctrine teaches that all human beings, living and dead, are so closely connected that we can be described as “one body.” (Catholics refer to this idea as the “Communion of the Saints.” Protestant churches also subscribe to this concept, though in slightly varied form.) Under that logic, when a Christian prays for someone who has died, he is also praying for himself. He therefore brings himself closer to God and closer to salvation.
Apparently, if one is fortunate enough to be a dead Catholic, one’s sentence in purgatory can be reduced – not on account of one’s own good behavior – but because of the good behavior of the super-prayers whom one left behind. If one is unfortunate enough to be a dead Protestant, however, then it seems that one must serve one’s full purgatorial term before proceeding to Paradise. What I find hilarious, however, is the blunt statement that the real reason people pray for others is that they expect to derive some benefit from it for themselves – their own salvation.
How do Christians know whether a dearly beloved departed soul actually requires their prayers? How do they know whether Aunt Gladys is stuck in Purgatory for a period of time, or was whisked straight through the Pearly Gates of the Heavenly City? It seems like it would be a waste of time to pray for the soul of someone who has already arrived at the ultimate destination. That time would be better spent praying for those who need it – the poor sods stuck in Purgatory. If only one could know for sure who they are. Of course, if the real aim of prayers for the dead is to secure one’s own room in Heaven’s Hilton Hotel, then all of these prayers may be equally useful.
After assuring her readers that the prayers of all believers carry equal weight with god, the author warns that “even a selfless, saintly pope can’t persuade God to let a sinner out of hell.” Well, god damn. That sucks. Unless…if the Universalists are right, no one has anything to worry about.
The author continues digging her hole (she must have dug nearly to China by now) by adding Mormon beliefs to the mix:
Mormons teach that prayer can’t move God to change his mind about a dead person, but they endorse one very controversial post-mortem tactic. Living Mormons who have already been baptized can undergo the procedure again on behalf of someone who was not baptized into the Mormon religion during his lifetime. This practice does not automatically get a person into paradise, but it’s considered a prerequisite.
Prayer – which, it must be admitted, is a pretty passive activity – doesn’t prompt god to change his mind. But, voluntarily undergoing the rigors of surrogate baptism – a more active activity than prayer – may persuade him to release a sinner from Hell and, a bonus for god, perhaps piss off Satan too. Is there a limit to the number of surrogate baptisms one can undergo? Perhaps someone who desperately needs a job right now can consider becoming a professional baptism surrogate. It may be a good enough gig to tie one over until the economy improves.
Seemingly having nowhere else to go from this point, the author concludes her piece with a reference to some scientific prayer studies. Well, she mentions several, but only discusses one:
Christians, of course, don’t limit their prayers to the deceased—they also pray for the sick, and several recent studies have tested whether this practice contributes to recovery. The answer appears to be no. As part of a study published in the American Heart Journal in 2006, researchers asked Christian congregations to pray for two groups of cardiac patients—the first group knew the Christians were praying on their behalf, and the second thought they might be. As a control, researchers told a third group that Christians might pray for them, but the Christians did not do so. Mortality rates were comparable across the three groups, but the unprayed-for group experienced the fewest complications.
These studies have been the subject of much debate around the Internet. If anyone wants to plunge into those waters again, be my guest. I haven’t read any of the studies myself, so I can’t comment on their methodologies or conclusions. To be honest, though, I’m not particularly interested in them anyway; discussing the purported effects of prayers offered to deities whose existence has yet to be determined is as pointless as, well, praying.