The Ethics of Prayer

18 October 2007

Beth posed an interesting question to me yesterday: is it ethical to pray for someone without telling that person? She came across this interesting question while doing some editing work; it revolves around an experiment wherein some people were prayed for and knew it, some others were prayed for and didn’t know it, some people were not prayed for and knew it (I think), and a fourth group thought people were praying for them but, in fact, nobody was.

The three main questions Beth and I discussed as I was reading papers and she came out of her office to get coffee are these:

  1. Is it ethical to pray for someone without her knowledge?
  2. Is it ethical to pray for someone who you would object/be offended/be insulted if he knew you were praying for him.
  3. Is it ethical, even in the name of research, to tell someone you are praying for her and then actively not pray for them.

This is more than just an academic exercise; I pray for some people who might object every day. Every morning and evening I pray for, among other people, the institution I work for and all its students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administration. Some members of each group, no doubt, would object to my praying for them. I have asked for a rabbi’s prayers before (I was having a hard day fasting and I asked him to pray that I would be able to teach my classes well despite not eating), and there seemed to be no problem with that, but I don’t know how some might react if they knew I prayed for them.

For me, answer 1 is easy: Yes. The only caveat is that it would be wrong for a person to pray for someone else to experience, receive, or do something they would not want (e.g. praying that my students convert to Christianity or asking that someone who wants to get a new job not get that job).

Number 3 is almost as easy. I would say, No, a person should not tell someone else, even in the name of science, that he is being prayed for unless someone is actually praying for them. Prayer is not something to lie about.

Number 2 is the trickiest. My initial answer would be the same as my answer for 1: you may pray for someone who would object to being prayed for only if you prayed for things that they would want and not for things they would not want. Prayers for wellness and protection are clearly kosher, but things become dicier if you get more specific.

Thoughts, anyone?

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3 Responses to “The Ethics of Prayer”

  1. Lee Says:

    Does it make a difference that the church prays for everyone (the church, the world, etc.) every Sunday?

    Also, I’m not at all sure that it’s wrong to pray for someone else to experience, receive, or do something they would not want. Would it be wrong to pray, e.g. the Osama bin Laden be turned from his murderous ways, which he (presumably) doesn’t want at present?


  2. Good post and I agree with Lee’s objection.

    YF (the WordPress placeholder page has a link to my real blog)


  3. Lee and YF—

    I hadn’t thought about the Church, as a body, praying for everyone’s welfare.

    I guess I was thinking more about individuals praying for specific intentions; I don’t know enough to be certain that there’s a theological distinction here, but I feel as if the Church praying for the general welfare of the world is different from an individual praying for a particular intention.

    And it certainly isn’t wrong to pray for someone’s conversion of life (which is what the Osama bin Laden example is referring to), I feel some trepidation praying for someone who does not want to be prayed for.

    I’m still curious about the ethical implications of telling someone they are being prayed for and then actively avoiding such prayer.

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