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Erlkönig: Prayer and Magic

A study of contrasts and similarities between magic and prayer.
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Prayer and magic can be grouped together in many respects, with the difference being whether a mystical third party is thought to be involved. The introduction of the third party leads to some interesting patterns in the adherents, however.

Prayer relies on badgering some deity into doing the actual work, who may refuse to do so. Hence it's frequently used as an alternative to practical action, is often blatantly selfish, is generally effectless, and its failures are almost always blamed on divine plan. Massive prayer vigils tend to combine the worst of all of these with being massive time sinks, leaving few people free to do anything effectual (We're starving, let's pray! for example), and deeply underscoring the nagging, beleaguering nature of prayer in these groups.

In contrast, groups without the intermediary usually try to affect the world directly through magic, tend to take responsibility for not succeeding instead of blaming some divine third party, often have substantial lore recommending against selfishness, and are less likely to believe that prayer/magic can replace practical effort.

In all groups, a significant fraction, even the majority, will probably never pay the group's rituals or concepts more than superficial service, often for mere peer validation, camaraderie, or even just a fondness for the rituals themselves. These people are irrelevant in determining the power of either prayer or magic.

In my experience, the prayer-oriented groups don't have any real interest in developing prayer as a skill with predictable effects, which makes sense given the third-party whim problem . A few magic-oriented groups, on the other hand, will test for effects, with the objective of developing magic as a skill. For example, one person may attempt to make one of several items feel more significant, and expect another to determine which by feel. In some cases a range of such tests is part of the group's lore, and such groups can even appeal to those with a background in scientific method, although applying rigorous testing must be frustrating or nearly impossible when emotion may be a key component of success.

I've seen people in both the prayer- and magic-oriented groups who seemed capable of passing the types of tests I mentioned, although very, very few. The prayer groups historically seem to be much less likely to be supportive, however.

Although the testing-oriented subgroups are probably the most likely to develop anything interesting in the long, long run, they will also probably be in the minority for at least as long. The expectation to improve one's skill is a significant barrier to entry, and it's much easier for an individual to walk into the arms of an accept-anyone religion that doesn't expect anything of its followers. Except possibly for manpower and tithing.

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