Is Praying for Academic Success Cheating?

Is Praying for Academic Success Cheating? February 16, 2012

Jen McCreight posted on her blog about someone who gave thanks for having passed an exam, and expressed gratitude for prayers offered on their behalf. Jen made several comments, among which this seemed to me the most interesting:

Seriously, if God really is the reason that some students were doing well, they should be expelled. A supreme deity isn’t enrolled in school, you are. If they’re altering your grades, that’s cheating.

I think this topic actually provides a useful case for reflecting on what one thinks about prayer. Christian views have varied widely on the subject down the centuries. Many church fathers were of the view that prayer changes us since God is unchangeable. If prayer is a way of gaining composure and relieving stress during an exam, it is presumably not at all inappropriate.

But if one believes that it might provide supernatural assistance, what then? Would asking God to help you do better on an exam represent a form of cheating? And conversely, if you don’t think it is cheating, does that suggest that you don’t really think prayer in such circumstances results in supernatural intervention on occasion?

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  • I don’t know how you could come up with meaningful statistical data on the issue, but a raft of anecdotal information suggests that for the majority of believers Christianity, like every other religion, has always been about begging for favors and averting misfortunes of a perfectly tangible sort. Why is praying for good grades any different than praying for the health of your horse? (“Seigneur Saint Eloi beni/Votre assistance nous requerons/A l’effect de preserver de tout mal/Nos juments pleines/Qui sont sujettes a la maladie.”)

    Religious elites promote spiritual goals, of course; but the appeal of a less materialistic piety doesn’t seem to work very well in the mass market. I guess the Protestants could insist that they’ve risen above the idolatry of the cult of the saints, but the more successful denominations are still threatening their members with literal hellfire while simultaneously promoting the faith as a road to prosperity, a sort of supernatural Amway franchise. Well, at least the laity knows what it wants. Why is popular superstition less worthy than elite superstition? Whatever its goal, after all, theurgy still theurgy so long as you’re asking a supernatural agent for something.

  • Bob MacDonald

    If anyone is living in the Spirit, whether that person is in the classroom, exam room or at stool, then God is there. It seems to me that I pray in the stress of my writing as part of that conversation that is me.  Last night, sleepless, jabbed with my latest treatment for cancer, so in a little distress, I was wrestling with the last verse of Psalm 18 – almost all night!  My thoughts were wrong and would not have passed an examination.  But by the morning, I ‘figured out’ that one must supply a subject for the participles – the second participle reflects Deuteronomy 5:9, ועשה חסד, the one who shows/does/makes mercy/kindness/lovingkindness.

    So there is God by ‘my’ faith, in medical stress, still wrestling with learning to read. I am not praying for anything, but as the psalmist says somewhere, (109:4) 
    וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּהI am a prayer.

    Perhaps God will move me to responsibility for my own results. Of course, at some point, I am not in control of the outcomes. (Reminds me of the end of John’s Gospel and Peter’s having to go where he did not want to go.)

  • Judy Redman

    I think it depends somewhat on how the person is praying and what else they are doing. So, if we have a person who understands the material, does really well in practical situations but goes to pieces under exam conditions who is praying (and getting others to pray) that s/he will remain calm and be able to show the examiners that s/he actually knows and understands the course material, this is hardly cheating. If we have someone who has only attended the compulsory parts of the course, not opened a textbook except to complete the assignments and has been partying all semester and is praying to pass, it’s probably also not cheating because God will say no. 🙂

    The people I have problems with are those like my mother. She lives in a smallish rural city and we drove downtown around 10.30 am to go to the bank. She was praying “please, Lord, get us a parking spot close to the bank” and then, when I was able to drive into one of about 10 parking spaces close to the bank (which is what you would expect at 10.30 am) “Thank you Lord.” “See, God answers prayer”, she tells me. Well, yes, God does answer prayer, but this was a situation in which there was no need to bother God because there was no reason to expect that there *wouldn’t* be a parking space close to the bank. She is elderly and has poor vision, so not having to walk too far from the car is a nice thing for her – she is not just lazy, incidentally, but this kind of prayer is somewhat akin to praying on Monday “Please, Lord, let tomorrow be Tuesday.”

  • Paul D.

    I think some of the commenters here might be missing the point. The point isn’t asking God for favours — good health, a convenient parking space, etc. Nor is the point the providence of God in ordaining the outcomes of mundane events. The point is that there are situations in which getting the help of a third party is cheating, and if you genuinely think God is giving you a surreptitious advantage by making correct test answers appear in your head, how is that different from cheating by having a friend texting you answers? Oughtn’t the prayer of an honest Christian to be, “Dear God, don’t help me with this test, for that would be unfair to other students and negate the reason I took this course”?

    I think the same question arises with sports. If you actually think God helped you perform better than you could have naturally, then I fail to see how that differs from taking a performance-enhancing drug. (We can complicate the question by asking if it’s ethically wrong to attempt to take performance-enhancing drugs while inadvertently consuming a placebo instead. I think most people would say yes.)

    However, since so many people pray for supernatural help on tests and in sporting events, and most of them would vigorously deny they are cheating, I would conclude that they don’t actually expect prayer to work in a genuine sense, but are merely doing so out of a habit that is very similar, if not identical, to superstition. Perhaps there is some cognitive dissonance there as there is in most supernaturalist, neo-medieval views of God — the desire for God to exist as an anthropomorphic being with magical powers, coupled with the realization that the universe operates exactly as it would if no such being existed.

  • Bob MacDonald

    God is not a third party, independent of examiner or examinee.

  • Paul D.

    If God is a person, and God is not you or the teacher, then by definition He is a third party.

    You can pose a non-anthropomorphic, panentheistic view of God (very reasonable, I think), but this is generally not the sort of God people are praying to for better marks or scoring touchdowns.

  • Great post — funny.  You are one of the many fine Christians sweeping your house (as my cartoon today illustrates).

    Getting rid of magical thinking in Christianity is a tough task.  Thanks for your efforts!

  • Bob MacDonald

    The answer is in the “Globe and Mail – Elizabeth Renzetti’s column.

    Call me names (panentheist) if you like – but I’, not one, I think, or not.