Once again Tish Harrison Warren is spreading Christian dogma in the pages of the New York Times, and once again I’m baffled that her unevidenced superstition is being purveyed to the paper’s readers.
The typical liberal religionist rationalizes praying to God as simply a form of meditation or a way to get emotional support. When pressed, such people may say that they don’t really think God even hears prayers, much less answers them.
But that’s not Reverend Warren. This Anglican priest is sure that God hears prayers. In her column on sin last week, she asked for readers to send samples of what prayers they were saying for Ukraine, and how that prayer made them “feel”. To wit:
She added, after this poll, that “We may mention some of your thoughts in next week’s newsletter.” I was pretty sure she would; after all, that’s a ready-made column. And sure enough, she did. Click on the screenshot to read:
It’s important at the outset to realize that for Warren, prayer is not a meditative, feel-good exercise. She really thinks God hears the diverse prayers she presents. My question is this: if God hears them, why doesn’t He stop the carnage of Ukraine, or give Putin a stroke? But I can’t ask her that stuff.
Nor does she mention the famous single-blind study of prayer that showed that intercessory prayer to God to help cardiac patients heal faster showed absolutely no effect (there was, as I recall, one significant effect, but in the direction that prayer worsened one criterion for healing). Earlier, Galton studied the effect of prayer for the longevity of British royals and showed no effect when royals were compared to other upper-class Brits with similar healtcare and nutrition.
Taking into account all studies, the Wikipedia article on “Efficacy of prayer” sums it up tersely in the first paragraph:
The efficacy of prayer has been studied since at least 1872, generally through experiments to determine whether prayer or intercessory prayer has a measurable effect on the health of the person for whom prayer is offered. Empirical research indicates that prayer and intercessory prayer have no discernible effects.
In short, there is not an iota of evidence that prayer works, but people still pray. You’d think that in the face of this evidence, people would confect other reasons for praying, as they often do, but would stop pretending that God hears prayers and sometimes acts on them.
And I doubt that Reverend Harrison would sign on to faith healing, a staple of some Christian sects. But what else is praying to God to change Putin’s mind, or make Russian soldiers want to go home, than a form of faith healing? And she subscribes to that form of faith healing.
Each morning over the past few weeks, I have woken up to the chirpy voices of my children. I’ve gotten them off to school and their daily activities, poured a cup of green tea and sat down to pray for Ukraine.
As I pray, images fill my mind: photos I’ve seen of tanks rolling into cities, of a Ukrainian man weeping over his dying son, of mothers and babies crammed into subway stations, of a Ukrainian soldier’s funeral. The contrast between my safe home and the war raging 6,000 miles away feels overwhelming. I feel helpless. There is little that most ordinary people here can do, besides donate money and pray.
Somehow I think the imbibing of not just tea, but “green tea” is significant here, but the subject is too deep for me.
The above shows the patented combination of personal vulnerability and “deep theological reflection” that, said Religion News, makes Warren “a rising star in Christian spiritual writing”. If that’s the case, then the pool of religious writing talent is no deeper than its theological lucubrations.
But I believe that prayer is indeed powerful, often in ways we can’t account for. War, whatever else it is, is spiritually dark, even demonic. . .
Demonic? Does she think that there are malevolent sprites involved? (Remember Pope Francis accepts the existence of demons.) But below you see where Warren avows not just belief in a divine being, but the fact that said Being has ears that can hear all the world’s prayers:
Last week I asked you to share prayers that you have offered for Ukraine. We received hundreds of beautiful responses. It was a profound experience to read so many prayers from people all over the world and of various faiths. It often felt intimate and tender, as if you were allowing me to read your journal or private mail. Thank you for that privilege. I wish I could share all of the responses, though I trust that God has heard each one.
What makes her trust that God has heard each one? That’s a pretty powerful God, but it also shows that, unlike many liberal believers, she accepts a personal god, not just a renamed “universe” or “spiritual feeling”. I would love to interview the good Reverend, just to find out what she really believes. We can start with the Nicene Creed.
Anyway, here are a few prayers she got. To a cynical antitheist like me, the prayers are a mixture of virtue flaunting before God, Warren, and the The New York Times, mixed with a bit of self-flagellation. Here’s one. It doesn’t sound that bad, but remember that it’s supposed to be addressed to God, not The New York Times:
Dustin Valero in California wrote that he uses his tradition’s prayer book. He prays “for the Ukrainians, including the church in Ukraine,” that they would have “a deep resolve and a deep sense of togetherness in the midst of trauma.”
He explained, “When I pray specifically for the church in Ukraine, while praying through this communal prayer book, I feel connected to the global body of believers. Their suffering is my suffering. Their cares are my cares. I consider them to be the peacemakers who can leverage love and faith in the midst of this darkness. I know my safe place on the couch is much different from their lived reality. I fight apathy and distraction in my day to day, and this prayer keeps suffering and hope closer to the front.”
In the one below, Sam is asking God to affect the mental processes of Russian soldiers. Moreover, he thinks that a). God hears this and b). God has the power to do this. But why don’t they? They already want to go home, but if they tried they’d be court-martialed.
Sam Rood in Brooklyn wrote, “My co-workers in Odessa have been praying that ‘a holy fear’ would fall upon the Russian soldiers so that they have an overpowering desire to go home. I’ve adopted that prayer.”
He continued, “My Ukrainian brothers and sisters understand that the Russian soldiers are not their true enemy. Their desire isn’t that they suffer or die but that they return home and they can all live in peace. Though fighting and even killing may be necessary, we remember our common humanity and shared need for peace.”
All of this comprises specific avenues of “praying for peace.” People have been praying for peace for centuries, but the important thing is this: God doesn’t seem to listen, at least not until a few million people have already died.
Below: a woke prayer, which indicts America as well.
The Rev. Canon Patrick Genereux from Iowa wrote: “When reflecting on Ukraine, I begin by being mindful of the murder and mayhem that we, the U.S., inflicted on Vietnam, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and any other places in the world, just as the Russians are doing in Ukraine. I pray for the forgiveness of these people for what we have done to them. I pray for the church in its blessing of war out of fear of reprisals. I pray to be forgiven for my part in these sins as both a priest and at one time a member of the military.”
He also wrote, “My prayers focus on all those whose lives will be forever changed — Ukrainians, Russians, Europeans, and in the end, us all. I pray for the most innocent victims of all wars, the children.”
And one last prayer that asks God to soften the Pharoah’s heart:
Many readers said that they are praying for Putin to repent of his actions and turn away from pursuing war. Here is an excerpt from a prayer from Pamela Thacher in New York: “God, please allow Putin to reject his thirst for war and punishment and greed, and whatever goal he had for his war, let him pursue it through other means. I pray for their leaders, of course, and especially the extraordinary President Zelensky.”
Now one can’t help but be touched by the sympathy that these people show toward the Ukrainians, but don’t we all? Nevertheless, I can’t help but feeling frustrated that they also believe that God is listening to them and—especially—that they seem to believe in a a benevolent God despite the strong and palpable evidence that God is letting awful stuff happen in Ukraine right now. God is allowing babies, pregnant mothers, children, and cancer patients to be killed. Why is he doing this? Please tell us, Dr. Warren, and if you say, “its a mystery,” then you have no warrant at all for knowing what God is like.
This is the problem of moral evil, which, along with the problem of physical evil, like cancer and earthquakes, is truly an Achilles heel of theology. Any person who looked at the world, especially in the last two weeks, and still retains a belief in a god, much less a benevolent god, is either blind, brainwashed with faith, or both. But that was also true during the Second World War.
So tell us, Reverend Warren, if God is really listening, why doesn’t he stop the war? He could, you know. He’d just have to soften Putin’s heart.