McAlister on Studying Aggressive Prayer

In this essay on the Social Science Research Council’s “The Immanent Frame” blog, Elizabeth McAlister considers “negative prayer as a part of lived religion,” citing examples from the Afro-Haitian Vodou religion and American evangelicalism. She writes: “Just as sorcerers are famous for their deployment of malediction, evangelical Christians are well known for a branch of thought and practice known as ‘spiritual warfare,’ which is also a form of aggressive prayer.”

McAlister is professor of religion, professor of African-American studies, professor of American studies.

McAlister discusses the ways different religious groups employ negative prayer. She concludes:

Studying prayer as it is actually lived in the world means paying attention to such aggressive forms of prayer, and exploring how ideas about negative and aggressive prayer change over time in a given society. We must also open up questions about the negative implications of positive prayer. […]  Studying aggressive forms of prayer may mean asking how religious actors engage with supernatural forces they perceive to be destructive, such as in exorcisms, or magic, and how they control the ritual so they are not themselves harmed. It means figuring out how explicitly negative prayer is rationalized or even justified by the person praying. Does someone praying negatively imagine themselves to be partnering with destructive or evil forces for their own gain, or do they imagine themselves to be neutral, or even righteous? Perhaps they imagine themselves to be in alliance with forces of ultimate good, which demands an aggressive form of prayer. How is negative prayer tied to conceptions of justice?

Read more about McAlister’s study in this past News@Wesleyan article.