Religion

Prayer vs. Black Magic

What’s the difference between Christian prayer and voodoo? I suppose it depends on which one you think is exotic and weird and which one you hear about every day.

This Gawker article tipped me off to a bizarre political/religious episode in the US involving Republican senator Tom Coburn asking people to pray for the death of Democratic senator Robert Byrd. Yesterday, a seemingly crazed person called CSPAN in a panic because despite his prayers, it was a Republican senator who went missing (Tom Inhofe).

How hard did you pray because I see one of our members was missing this morning. Did it backfire on us? One of our members died? How hard did you pray senator? Did you pray hard enough?

Here’s the video:

About Coburn’s appeal, Gawker writes, “This is not prayer. It’s black magic. And people who believe in magic are, at the risk of generalizing, generally idiots.”

Er, but how is this not prayer, exactly? Prayer, as I know it, is an appeal to a supernatural being asking it to intervene in the world. Is it because the prayer is a hope for death? People (including Christians) have been praying to their gods for death for ages. Sorry, but you can’t just gather up all the ugly realities of the religion you’re comfortable with and assign them to someone else’s religion or superstition.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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19 Comments

  1. Well, in fact there’s two primary uses for prayer, that you see distinguished throughout history. They’re defined, kind of loosely, as “theurgy” and “thaumaturgy.” “Theurgy” is prayer that is designed to improve the psychological or spiritual landscape of the individual. “Thaumaturgy”, or “miracle-working”, is designed to achieve practical effects in the real world.

    These are the two versions of magic that are usually ascribed “Right-hand path” and “left-hand path” and, sometimes “white” and “black” magic–though this last one is the least common, as “black magic” usually means “thaumaturgy for wicked purposes.”

    So, Chen is wrong to suggest that prayer and black magic are mutually exclusive, but it’s not wholly accurate to describe all prayer as a request for divine intervention in the function of the universe.

  2. Wow, aside from the ridiculous magic aspect of this, what kind of jerk actually wishes for someone else’s death, and even does something that they believe will cause that death? Did Coburn do something illegal? If you threaten someone with a fake gun that you think is real, does it still count as a death threat or murder attempt?

  3. Democrats rolled a save against spellcasting, and with a +5 spell resistance bonus, the spell is automatically reflected on the caster. Good thing they picked up that Helm of Resistance in the Leiche’s layer.

  4. I was raised Pentecostal. I didn’t realize it until I became an atheist, but some of the things my relatives do bear a striking resemblance to voodoo.

    I recall one instance in 2004 where we stood in a circle, holding hands. On the table before us is a piece of cloth dabbed with some special liquid, and everyone is calling out to an invisible being, trying to infuse the cloth with healing properties. (The pastor was deathly ill, and it was better than, say, calling a doctor.)

    Suddenly, my great-aunt starts channeling a spirit from the other side! She’s spouting all these weird phonemes that are too simplistic and repetitive to have anything resembling a grammar or syntax. When she finishes (and I think this is my favorite part), another member of the group gets possessed by the same ghost, for the sole purpose of repeating the message in English.

    When I was a kid, I was always curious about what it would be like to attend a séance. If I had known that’s what all the grown-ups were doing while I was stuck in Sunday School, I might have been more enthusiastic about my religion.

  5. Sorry, but you can’t just gather up all the ugly realities of the religion you’re comfortable with and assign them to someone else’s religion or superstition.

    Sure you can! It’s all just part of how y0u distinguish between us (yay!) and them (boo! hiss!).

    On an unrelated note, I can’t find out how to get a picture next to my name. Maybe I should pray to the Invisible Pink Unicorn for assistance.

  6. As a former Christian this was always part of the problematic New Testament versus Old Testament issue. God was clearly a nasty, vindictive, petulant, and self absorbed, smiting machine back in the day, and for some reason that all changed with Jesus. Well, one of the basic teachings of Christianity for 2000 years has been that God’s nature and character is never ending and unchanging. I guess all the smiting is now being saved up for the final judgment.

  7. I think Exarch has it right here. It’s all about packaging.

    Webster defines magic as

    1 a : the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces b : magic rites or incantations
    2 a : an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source b : something that seems to cast a spell : enchantment

    Prayer absolutly falls into those definitions. It’s just considered acceptible in our culture. Magic is evil because it’s against YAHWEH’s will, but the Bible commands us to pray.

    If courts actually recognized prayer as something that worked, this man could easily be brought up on charges. Regaurdless tho, I think he should be brought up on charges simply for publicly advocating his death. What if someone had gone and shot the man because this guy wanted him dead? He would be at fault for encouraging him.

    I personally would attempt to charge him on the grounds of the prayer just to see what the courts would do, and to in turn set a precedent.

  8. If God somehow manifested in such a way as to make His Existence absolutely clear and undeniable and then held a press conference making it absolutely clear that, not only did He exist, but he was in favor of universal health care (and pro abortion and against death penalty, why not?), I think that’s what it would take to make the christian right stop believing in him.

  9. I’d respect these people more if they just advocated the violent murder of pols they didn’t like. The “pray for them to die” idea is such a gutless, calculated way to avoid being held legally actionable for their insanity. If you really thought god existed and was on your side, why wouldn’t you be braver about it? I really think that, deep down on some level, these people don’t really believe in the stuff they say they do.

    Can you imagine if American Muslim leaders were (publicly) urging people to pray for the deaths of specific Republican congressmen? The shit would really hit the fan then.

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