Michael Okoko's argument against the efficacy of intercessory prayer

In many parts of the Bible, we see where the outcome of prayer requests or merely obeying God is used to reinforce belief in God even though the ones observing had no clue on how God intervened. These outcomes or miracles constituted empirical evidence for God’s power or existence. Thus we don’t need to have a theoretical understanding of how something works before we can know if it really works. This has been done to homeopathy, acupuncture, and every sort of woo present. IP cannot be an exception.

I don’t expect God to answer all prayers, anymore than I would expect a human father to grant all his children’s request, but I would expect God to grant certain key requests, especially if these requests might lower belief in his power or existence if he doesn’t answer.

Whenever a Christian falls sick or suffers a terrible event, that Christian is prayed for by other Christians with the hope that God would respond on their behalf. It is unrealistic to assume that God will answer all intercessory prayers, but its reasonable to assume he would answer some. In fact, the Bible tells us to expect observable benefits due to intercessory prayers, see these verses below:

2 Corinthians 1:11 “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”

James 5:14 “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”

Thus IP studies can test these claims and see if they survive. Indeed they have been tested and no significant clinical benefits have been found. This indicates that IP is most likely of no use to those who are the intended targets.

As for the Elijah-Baal scenario, I keep bringing it up because we see that Elijah murdered the prophets of Baal without fully considering all factors of interest. He did not consider whether Baal’s prophets were faithful enough or whether Baal’s just didn’t want to respond. What if Baal was testing the faith of his prophets to see if it would flicker under this circumstance. For all we know, the prophets of Baal might be in heaven now rejoicing in the presence of Baal for dying steadfast in his worship. Elijah simply took the outcome of the challenge as a basis for having the prophets murdered, and that is repugnant to me. Even the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jericho has not sat well with me. In my opinion, these events increase the probability that either the God of the Jews was a mere tool made up by the Jews for conquest or he was just a fan of senseless violence.

I remember a donkey once spoke in the Bible. Anyone can quote the Bible text. However, I think what we all wait for is someone worthy to quote the text and rightly divide its meaning for us.

I am of the opinion that you are not that person.

You have conclusively shown you aren’t that person either.

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How does a donkey’s speech relate to the OP?

The bible verses I quoted were interpreted properly. When Christians pray to God on behalf on other Christians, they expect God to act in some way. If God acts, then that act should be measurable in some physical way.

If the Christians being interceded for are sick, that means we would expect recovery as an act of God that would be measurable.

Of course, God could decide not to heal anybody in IP studies, but it will be to his own disadvantage in a similar way Baal’s silence was a disadvantage to him and his prophets. Interestingly, the clergy who took part in this trials should have declined, if they knew they shouldn’t force God’s hand, but they participated anyway (just as the prophets of Baal agreed to Elijah’s challenge). There is no good reason to believe the clergy who took part in these trials were not honest or sincere and really wanted God to prove his power to the world.

Sadly, God’s response was no different from placebo (or whatever control was used), and in some cases, people who were prayed for fared worse.

The best conclusion we can draw from such studies is that IP is not worthy of consideration in clinical practice or everyday life (just like homeopathy). This is similar to the conclusion Elijah drew when Baal did not respond to the pleas of his prophets.


Of course intercessory prayer works. It may do so through any of the following mechanisms:

  1. The person praying may feel a conviction in their heart to materially help the person being prayed for.
  2. The person being prayed for may benefit from the knowledge that someone cared enough for them to pray for them, and may reach out to them for further help.
  3. Anyone listening to the prayer (for such prayers are often carried out in church settings) may become aware of the need, and help out the person being prayed for.
  4. The person being prayed for may get better due to the placebo effect.
  5. God may act in a way that’s outside any of the above mechanisms,
  6. which may furthermore be outside any currently known laws of nature,
  7. which may furthermore be outside all laws of nature, known or unknown.

Now, it should be obvious that God mostly works through mechanisms 1-4. After all, God created the universe and it’s laws. He gave the biblical commands to his church. He made it so that the natural operation of things would result in the effects that he said would come to pass.

So the Bible verses that commands us to pray are true. We pray following these commands, and the person we pray for gets better. It’s simple. It works. This validates the biblical commands, and therefore increases the probability that God really exists.

One problem with academic studies of IP is that they only test for mechanisms 5 and above. Obviously such actions by God are rare (or may be nonexistent altogether) - the studies are likely far too underpowered to detect such effects, and can therefore draw no useful conclusions.

Furthermore, such studies have huge methodological issues. Most importantly, their treatment is not at all what was commanded to be practiced in the churches. So, a double-blind prayer with a placebo as the control was shown to be ineffective? Has any church ever practiced prayer in that way? Is that what’s commanded of us in the Bible?

One basic tenant of such experiments is that you should test what you actually want to apply. IP studies spectacularly fail on this most fundamental of principles. Trying to apply its results to actual, biblically commanded prayer is like testing the efficacy of astrology and then concluding that astronomy is false. In addition, there’s the whole question of what it could mean to do a double-blind test on the actions of the Almighty.

But prayer, carried out as the Bible instructs, is clearly powerful and effective.

As for the prophets of Baal: the key feature of the story here is that they went along with Elijah’s test. In doing so they effectively said that ‘yes, this is how Baal works’, and made the test valid. Whereas the response of pretty much all Christians to IP experiments is to say ‘no, this is NOT a valid test’ - a key difference.

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“I can become invisible, but only if no-one looks at me”

Even if only a tiny proportion of the effectiveness of IP was due to mechanisms 5 and above in your scheme, it would work sufficiently that, with a large enough sample size, experimental and control groups would differ significantly.

Otherwise you’re parsing the effectiveness of IP down so far away from how it is understood by most believers that it reduces to an entirely natural phenomenon with no supernatural element at all.


When I saw this, I hoped you would provide evidence to back up this claim, but all I saw are assertions and more assertions. If it works, how do you know it works?

Alright let’s see them, even though most of them were irrelevant to my argument.

I don’t see how this mechanism is relevant to people who are hospitalized or receiving some form of therapy, which I clearly argued that IP is ineffective for. This seems to be an unintentional strawman.

I am confused, how does reaching out to an intercessor help you recover from a disease? How does someone even knowing they were prayed for benefit from that knowledge? These are the sweeping assertions you keep making, but you don’t provide a shred of evidence to corroborate them. Its interesting you are making population-wide assertions on the efficacy of IP, which IP studies have looked at and found not beneficial, yet you reject the evidence from IP studies. You can’t eat your cake and have it.

Again this irrelevant to my argument. I have only read IP studies that investigated the clinical usefulness of IP, so I don’t know if IP studies have been done in other areas of interest. In a clinical context, the data shows IP is not effective.

This is getting hilarious, the placebo effect, seriously? Anyway, its good you said it, because it means we can keep IP in the same junkyard where homeopathy, naturopathy and acupuncture now unhappily reside because they all “work” solely due to the placebo effect.

More importantly, the placebo effect doesn’t really help with organic disease as many studies have shown. You may think you have gotten better, but in reality you are still sick. I didn’t know God is a master at illusory healing.

All of the mechanisms you listed so far are irrelevant to Covid-19 patients on respirators, amputees, and many other sick people. The placebo effect may be helpful with conditions like pain (which involves a significant degree of subjectivity), but its useless to virtually every organic disease.

More importantly, how is God employing mysterious methods of healing relevant to the discussion? Read the OP again, whether God is acting mysteriously or in an understandable fashion, his acts should have observable effects. IP studies have searched for those effects and found none.

These are irrelevant.

Assertions, assertions, assertions. This is getting boring.

Let me ask, how can you distinguish God’s act from that of chance?

If you are going to discount IP studies which are far more rigorous than your anecdotal tales, then you must have really good reasons. You have not shown any, but keep on repeating these assertions without evidence. How do you know IP works? How do you even know it was Yahweh who intervened? Don’t ignore these questions, answer them.

All the mechanisms you listed are irrelevant to IP studies on human health and no IP study has ever tested for any of the mechanisms you listed above.

IP studies are interested in measuring the outcomes of IP. If it worked, then the mechanisms would have been sought after. But it didn’t work and it was bastioned with homeopathy, acupuncture and other types of woo.

There are over 2 billion Christian worldwide, so if we picked a large enough sample size with appropriate controls, we wouldn’t be able to detect God’s healing power?

Its strange you claim God’s acts are rare. How did you measure this?

But you engage in double-blinded prayers all the time. Don’t you pray for people you don’t know? Isn’t that a blinded prayer? Do the strangers you prayed for know you prayed for them? Isn’t that also blinded? If you pray for people you don’t know and the strangers don’t know you prayed for them, isn’t that double-blinded? Is anything wrong with that?

This is not entirely accurate, but let me grant it. Fine, we wanted to apply IP in clinical practice, but it didn’t receive experimental support like homeopathy and acupuncture, so shouldn’t we drop it like we did those two?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As I have shown, you do this too, so what’s the problem?

Let me rephrase it for you:

As for the clergy of Christianity: the key feature of the story here is that they went along with clinical trials on IP efficacy. In doing so they effectively said that ‘yes, this is how Yahweh works’, and made the test valid.

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So, I think you misunderstood one simple detail in my list of mechanisms above. That’s okay; perhaps I should have been more clear. The key words in mechanism 1-3 is “materially help”. As in - you know, help with direct, material things, like medicine, bandages, rides to hospitals, surgery, or money, which can be exchanged for the goods and services in this list.

I think, with that clarification, much of the bluster in your previous post can be seen to be misdirected. I suppose I should address the remaining parts, but before we do so, I think it’s useful to touch base, and make sure that we’re agreed on some basic things, just on the level of simple scientific literacy. I’d like for you to acknowledge two things:

  1. The ‘material help’ like the ones that I listed above actually work.
  2. The placebo effect is a real effect, that actually helps the recipient. You may keep your reservations about it not helping much, but it does help in a real, measurable way.

If we can get agreement on those two things, I think we can move forward. I hope we don’t have to play some silly game where you say things like “well where is your evidence that vaccines really work?”


I see that you apparently understood what I meant by “materially help”. That’s great! You understand that mechanisms 1-4 are real and effective.

You imply that this is like saying “I can become invisible, but only if no-one looks at me”. Actually, it’s more like saying “there really are things that are really invisible” - but I think we both know that neither of us will be convinced by exchanging little sayings like this. That’s why I intend to make a separate post some time later, to discuss the kind of error that I think you’re making, starting from first principles. But for now, maybe this post on my blog will be helpful to you:

In any case, I look forward to your engagement when I make that post! Meanwhile, we’ll be patient while Michael catches up to where you are.


Thanks, I look forward to your future post.

Did read your blog post, and I’d have thought the rival possibilities for explaining the observation that those prayed for are healed at a rate no better than chance might include:

  1. God does not exist (where ‘God’ is defined as ‘the kind of God that answers prayers for healing by causing healing (at least some of the time)’)
  2. God exists but chooses not to answer these kinds of prayers in the affirmative at all
  3. God exists and normally answers these kinds of prayers in the affirmative, except when being observed in a blind experimental study
  4. God exists and answers these kinds of prayers in the affirmative, but the Devil comes in and causes equal and opposite harm
  5. God exists and answers these kinds of prayers in the affirmative sometimes, but in the negative sometimes to such an extent that it causes active harm that cancels out the active good
  6. People are confused about what kind of God exists: He never promised or intended to act in this way
  7. Aliens

Can you think of more? Because the finding that we’re seeking to explain is the fact that these healings do not occur at a rate better than chance.

Anyway, quite happy to wait until you have the opportunity to lay it out systematically.


None of the mechanisms you listed are relevant to my arguments. Read the OP again and see that I am arguing that IP is ineffective for clinical applications.

And I have asked how these actions aid recovery? If these things really aid organic disease recovery, then it means they are independent mechanisms from prayer, because both theists and non-theists use them. I would like you to stick to the bone of contention here, which is the efficacy of IP in clinical therapy.

You misunderstood the OP. Read it again and try to get a clearer understanding of the points I made.

For 1, you are yet to provide evidence that “material help” works and even if it did, it would be independent from prayer.

For 2, it seems you do not understand what the placebo effect (or more appropriately, placebo response) is. It is not a “real effect”, it is illusory. I’d suggest you review the topic and see why you wouldn’t want God using it as a mechanism of healing.

I really fought the urge to say something nasty here, but I took a few deep breaths to dissipate my angst.

First, how is asking for evidence silly? Law courts, police officers and every critically thinking person always ask for evidence, are they silly? Even the Jews asked Moses for evidence that God sent him, were they silly?

The study designs that showed vaccines are effective, also showed that IP is not effective, just as they showed homeopathy and acupuncture are clinically inefficacious. That’s data and its never going to go away.

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This is the explanation that Elijah did not consider for Baal with regards to the public challenge. And if God does this, just like Baal did, that lowers the probability that he exists.

In addition, Christians pray double-blind when they pray for strangers and are prayed for by strangers. If they believe God answers these prayers, then there is no good reason for him not answer double-blinded prayers in an IP trial.

This is certainly plausible, but most Christians would agree that the God that exists is good and has clearly expressed in the scriptures that his intentions toward us are good ones. This explanation would work if it can be shown that the Bible misrepresented God’s thoughts, but that would be nigh futile, as there are plentiful verses to demonstrate God’s beneficence to humans (especially his worshippers).

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So… you want me to provide evidence that, like, medicine works?

Look, the basis of communication is some common ground. I was hoping that we can use these most basic of starting points to get somewhere. But you seem to on the path to simply make things difficult. It’s easy enough to program a computer to print “give me more evidence” on a loop. Such behavior is not insightful, intelligent, or helpful to discussion.

My two points I brought up above are completely noncontroversial, and should be easily acceptable to anyone with any inkling of scientific literacy, or even common sense. Again, they are:

  1. The ‘material help’ like the ones that I listed above actually work.
  2. The placebo effect is a real effect, that actually helps the recipient. You may keep your reservations about it not helping much, but it does help in a real, measurable way.

If you acknowledge them, we can move ahead. Or you can continue to ask me to “provide evidence” while refusing to understand anything I say - although I urge you to not to go down that path.

“God’s mechanisms” 1-4 are equally well-explained as God not existing or doing any work at all. If you notice, God figures nowhere in them. It’s simply people’s own thoughts and behavior.

The people praying could be praying to anything. Toasters, clouds, Emperor Palpatine, and the effect would be the same.


This is highly irrelevant to my argument. The question is not whether medicines work, rather, its whether IP improves the clinical outcomes of patients. You have clearly missed this. Take a step back, go through the OP again and respond appropriately.

OK let’s clear things up. Please elaborate what you understand about the placebo effect?

And why God is necessary to explain the efficacy of the placebo effect, where pocket lint would do worse.


Exactly. He obviously has a poor understanding of what the placebo effect is: there isn’t one placebo effect, there are many placebo effects. Placebo effects only show up in trials where the outcome of interest involves a great deal of subjectivity like pain, stress levels and quality of life. When hard, objective outcomes are measured like death and birth rates, they don’t occur.

Placebo effects give the illusion of being well, when in reality the opposite is the case especially if the cause of disease is physiological. This was beautifully captured in Ted Kaptchuk’s study. See below:

The article clearly shows why any benefits derived from placebo effects are of little benefit to clinical practice. They are illusory.



You don’t really think that praying to Palpatine is effective as praying to God for mechanism 1, do you? Even just praying to Luke Skywalker should be more effective in inspiring the person who prays to do good.

Anyway, I mentioned earlier in this thread that I’ll be writing a whole separate post about the kind of mistake I think you’re making, starting from first principles. So let’s hold thing off until then. Meanwhile, thanks for at least acknowledging that mechanisms 1-4 are at least real, and would in fact help the recipient!


Um… “highly irrelevant”? It was you were the one that asked for the evidence, not I. Here, let me reconstruct the full chain for you:

Nor is this the only time you’ve asked for such evidence. You’ve done so repeatedly and incessantly throughout this conversation:

Do you see that you claiming this is “irrelevant” in your last post is completely inconsistent with your previous demands?

That’s not all. In this conversation so far, you’ve demonstrated a propensity to cover up your mistake by piling on a more fundamental, more pernicious error. So, you’ve gone from:

  1. misunderstanding what I meant by “material help” - a phrase that everyone else in this thread had no problem comprehending. Sure, this is a bad mistake, but nothing that can’t be cleared up with some effort.
  2. refusing to acknowledge basic scientific facts, to cover up for mistake #1. This is when we start getting into errors that may be considered “fatal”.
  3. failing at self-consistency, to cover up for mistake #2. This is an immediately fatal error, and this is when your overall behavior in this regard can be established as a pattern.

At this point, how can you expect anyone to take you seriously? When you don’t even take your own prior statements seriously?

Fortunately, the remedy is clear. Because your errors become larger and more fundamental as they progress, we have to start from the last one and work backwards.

First, acknowledge that you were not being self-consistent.
Second, acknowledge the simple scientific facts that I brought up earlier.
Third, acknowledge that you misunderstood “material help”, and re-read my first post with that in mind.

It has to be done in this order: self-consistency comes first. You can’t expect to understand simple scientific facts without the discipline of self-consistency, and you can’t expect to read a science-related post without some simple scientific facts.

After you take the above steps, we can THEN finally get to the inconsistency between the article you linked and how you’ve interpreted it, and the myriad of other mistakes in your argument. Believe me, I’d love to get to all that. BUT, all that can only come after you learn how to be self-consistent.

This doesn’t have to be arduous. It can be as easy as typing out a few lines, like this:

“Alright, I acknowledge that it was a mistake to demand extra evidence, then later claim that it’s irrelevant. I can accept your two statements, although I’d like for you to clear up how you understand ‘placebo effect’. I should have read your first post more carefully.”

This will help you to be a better debater, a better communicator, a better scientist, and a better person. Acknowledgement of simple scientific facts are that important. Self-consistency is more important still.

Again, the three steps are the following:

First, acknowledge that you were not being self-consistent.
Second, acknowledge the simple scientific facts that I brought up earlier.
Third, acknowledge that you misunderstood “material help”, and re-read my first post with that in mind.

I hope you take these steps. The first of these form the basis for all other discussions that we could potentially have.

Yes I do. If the people praying believe in what they’re praying to, I don’t see why not. People have prayed to all sorts of things. People have prayed to the sun. There are people who pray to the Force, and probably Palpatine too.

For my own part, if you asked me to pray to God or to Palpatine, I also genuinely believe that’d be equally effective.

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Specifically for mechanism 1: do you think that praying to Palpatine is equally effective as praying to Luke Skywalker, SPECIFICALLY for the purpose of inspiring the person who prays to do good and give material help?

I mean, one man was a galactic dictator who used hate-fueled force powers and blew up entire planets; the other man redeemed his father, who was the dragon to the first man. You think they’re equally inspirational figures?

Yes, if the person believes that Palpatine would want to help them. People can have selfish reasons for wanting to help others. But hey, I think Luke Skywalker would work just as well as God too. Now, whether people generally find Luke Skywalker or Palpatine to be an inspirational character is besides the point. The point is it is people’s own beliefs that make them take action, and their actions that have real world effects. God (like Luke Skywalker) doesn’t have to exist for this to occur. And shouldn’t be given credit for the actions of human beings, who are the one doing the actual work.

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