The folly of prayer

I recently saw a group on Facebook called Praying for Layla Grace, a support group for a beautiful little girl suffering from stage 4 neuroblastoma, which is cancer of the nervous system. "Stage 4" means the cancer has spread to other organs – in this case her bone marrow – meaning her prognosis is grim. Perhaps it's just my fascination with psychology, but I think tragic situations such as this provide a unique insight into human behavior. In this case, I'm curious what people's rationalization is for praying on Layla's behalf. Presumably, they hope that God will cure her. Presumably, they want a miracle. And who among us wouldn't? I can only imagine the pain of losing a child to cancer. When I worked as a physical therapy tech in college, I witnessed first-hand a child wasting away from brain cancer. It was difficult for me to witness, as a total stranger; for her family, the tragedy was certainly overwhelming.

It's my position that prayer ultimately does more harm than good. At best, it's a superstitious behavior with dubious theological foundations that creates false expectations and is supported only by the light of confirmation bias. At worst, those false expectations can make already difficult situations that much more difficult as believers are forced to fabricate rationalizations on the behalf of God when their prayers do not come to pass as they hoped.

I know a great many others have taken a crack at debunking prayer, which is now a fair bit easier thanks to a number of well-designed scientific studies that have done just that. But believers are never short on rationalizations when science strikes down such a commonplace behavior. Prayer can't be studied, they might say. Or, you have to pray for the right kinds of things. They might suggest that a controlled study of prayer is an attempt to manipulate God and hey, you just can't do that. Some might even go so far as to say that solid scientific evidence that prayer works would be too much evidence for God's existence, and that would take away "free choice"... as though knowing for certain whether God existed would adversely effect one's choice to follow him.

Theological hurdles

Whenever people pray for someone like Layla Grace, it begs the question: if God is capable of intervening and healing her, why didn't he just keep her from getting sick in the first place? In my experience, believers struggle ceaselessly with this question, usually deferring to some sort of vague rationalization about God's will being mysterious. But this raises another important question: If God's will is unknown, and he will act on it regardless of your prayers, how is that any different than praying to a god that does not exist?

Sometimes believers will rationalize that God wants to test his faithful, or give them an opportunity to act with compassion and love. But this feeble rationalization presumes that God would afflict a toddler with deadly cancer just to test the faith of his followers. What reasonable person would wish to follow such a god? Such rationalizations remind me of the following quote by Bertrand Russel, commenting on the rationalization that such tragedies are the result of "original sin":
"I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children’s ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering. In order to bring himself to say this, a man must destroy himself in all feelings of mercy and compassion. He must, in short, make himself as cruel as the God in whom he believes"
Much of these theological conundrums hearken back to the problem of evil, or as I prefer to describe it, the problem of suffering. "Evil", to me, narrowly refers to deliberate acts of malice; "suffering", on the other hand, refers to the natural course of events over which we have no control.

Beyond intercessory prayer, there are also prayers of thanks, and prayers of a personal nature such as praying for one's own good fortune. I've noticed that believers are wont to praise God for all manner of things – they thank God for the food on their table or the friends and lovers they meet, pray they will be chosen for that lucrative promotion, etc. These types of prayers beg two important questions – in just what way is it that God has intervened such that he is found to be deserving of thanks, and why has he excluded so many others in need? Why, for example, would God be thanked for the bountiful food on your table while millions of children all over the world face death from famine? Does God think your life is more valuable than theirs? Does this omnipotent God choose to control some things, but not others?

Prayer has no effect

The meta-analysis of intercessory prayer to which I linked above concludes thus: "There is no scientifically discernable effect for IP [intercessory prayer] as assessed in controlled studies. Given that the IP literature lacks a theoretical or theological base and has failed to produce significant findings in controlled trials, we recommend that further resources not be allocated to this line of research." 

But we don't necessarily have to look at studies of intercessory prayer specifically to discern whether prayer is of any value; we can simply look at the world around us. Believers die of tragic illnesses and circumstances at the same rate as non-believers. Imagine, for example, that you are driving cross-country, and pray to God that he will protect you on your trip. Unfortunately, the probability of being in an auto accident – fatal or otherwise – is a statistically predictable phenomenon; believers are no more or less likely to be spared than non-believers. Little Layla Grace is statistically no more or less likely to survive her cancer than any other child, despite the fact that innumerable people are undoubtedly praying on her behalf. When natural disasters strike such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, believers are affected just the same as non-believers. Believers and non-believers divorce at the same rate (actually, one study by the Barna group – headed by an evangelical Christian – found that atheists have a lower divorce rate than Christians, though I suspect that is for other reasons, such as the tendency for believers to marry younger), and have the same rates of mental illness such as depression (again, some studies have found this to be higher for believers).

I think it is perfectly reasonable to presume that if a theistic God* really existed and answered prayers, none of this would be the case, simply because what we observe is precisely what we should expect to observe if a theistic God does not exist. I believe that rather than confound ourselves as we attempt to reconcile the behavior of an omnipotent but completely invisible and undetectable god with the harsh indifference of the natural world toward human suffering, we should accept reality as it truly is that we may face it with realistic expectations and better cope with tragedy and disappointment, rather than persist in wishful thinking.

And it is here that I'll close with one of my favorite quotes, from Carl Sagan: It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. 

*I make a note of specifically referring to a theistic god – one who orchestrates events, cares about people and intervenes in the natural world – versus a deistic god, who exists (or existed) merely as an imponderable "first cause" that set the universe in motion; no one prays to a deistic god – that would be a paradoxical concept! I believe the existence of a theistic god is a much more relevant question than the existence of a deistic god, and I believe the existence of a deistic god is best addressed with other, distinct arguments such as the ones I have posted previously. [1], [2], [3], [4].


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