Claims that Prayer Cures Disease

green blogs--bacteria under a microscopeWashington recently declared a state epidemic for pertussis (whooping cough).  Pertussis hasn’t been this bad in Washington for decades.  The number of cases (close to 2000) is already ten times the number from last year.

Before routine child vaccination in the 1940s, pertussis caused thousands of fatalities annually in the U.S.

You might imagine that this is a story about anti-vaxers, afraid of a perceived vaccine-autism link, who have refused to vaccinate their children and helped create this epidemic.  Not this time.  The anti-vaccine movement seems not to be a factor.

Instead, the interesting angle on this story is not disease prevented by vaccine but disease prevented by prayer.  Kingdom League International, an online ministry based in western Washington, says in a brief article titled “Whooping Cough Epidemic Halted in Jefferson County”:

Churches in Jefferson County [one of those hardest hit by the statewide epidemic] used our strategy to mobilize prayer and establish councils to connect in 7 spheres of society.*  On Mar 27 they met and a County Commissioner asked them to pray about the whooping cough epidemic. …  As of April 13 there has not been one case reported.  From epidemic proportions to zero.

A bold claim, but the only evidence is that of the improvement in statistics.  The elephant in the room, of course, is whether we can find natural explanations besides prayer to explain the facts.  And, of course, we can.  Epidemics peak and then diminish, particularly when there’s an effective health system in place that can administer vaccines.  There were 21 confirmed cases for this county in 2012, with no new cases since mid-April.  Is this remarkable?  Is this unexplained by the efforts of the public health system?  Looks to me like an epidemic that’s simply run its course.

Not surprisingly, I jumped into a discussion with the author in the comment section.  Aside from being asked my faith status (though I’m not sure how this affects one’s ability to evaluate evidence), I got the expected tsunami of miracle claims—a bad knee healed, a barren woman now pregnant, lung cancer cured, demons cast out, blindness healed, a stroke patient recovering, a rainstorm to break a heat wave, a cracked rib healed, and so on.

(For comparison, consider the pinnacle of medical cure sites, Lourdes.  After 150 years as a pilgrimage site and with six million visitors per year, the Catholic Church has recognized just 67 miraculous cures.)

I pointed out to my Kingdom League correspondent that natural explanations hadn’t been ruled out.  Surprisingly, there was no interest in doing so.

I tried to portray this as a missed opportunity.  If these claims are more than just anecdotal, then this group should create a dossier of x-rays, test results, photographs, or other evidence, both before and after the miracle.  Add the report of the doctor who witnessed the change and then show this to the Centers for Disease Control or an epidemiologist or some other qualified authority.  Why hide your light under a basket?  Jesus had no problem using miracles to prove his divinity (John 10:37–8).

There seems to be no shortage of these miracles (at least in their minds), so if one miracle claim isn’t convincing, then pray for some more and try again to convince the skeptics.

That this group has no interest in going beyond feel-good anecdotes makes me think that they understand that their claims wouldn’t withstand scrutiny, not because skeptics wouldn’t play fair, but because honestly evaluating the claims would show them to be little more than wishful thinking.

Pray v. To ask the laws of the universe to be annulled
on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Addendum 6/1/12: After further discussion with the author of the KLI article, he reminded me that links in the comment section give more than anecdotal information, including this article in the Southern Medical Journal.

*KLI focuses on the Dominionists’ Seven Spheres of Influence.

Photo credit: AJC1

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9 thoughts on “Claims that Prayer Cures Disease

  1. The cure/prevention rate for such diseases as TB, malaria, measles, and many others is high when modern medical/scientific methods are used. The statistics are there for anyone who’s interested. What’s the cure/prevention rate for these diseases when the only intervention is prayer? Where are the statistics or empirical evidence to back any such claims? Prayer advocates will claim that because prayer is a “supernatural” phenomenon, it’s not amenable to such worldly undertakings. Or that it’s not nice to challenge God; we simply have to have faith. Well, I do have faith – in my doctor’s knowledge, experience and abilities and in the wealth of modern medicines and procedures available to her.

    • I submit that you do NOT have faith in your doc. There’s a spectrum of decision-making techniques available to you. In order of reliability, they are: (1) logic, (2) reason, (3) confidence (in things), (4) trust (in people), (5) chance, (6) obedience, (7) hope, and, last and least (8) faith. What you have is at a minimum trust, and possibly reason if you’ve got a track record to go on. What you do NOT have is faith, which is belief in the absence of any evidence and frequently in the face of evidence to the contrary, which is why faith is the world’s absolute worst decision-making method.

    • As for it not being nice to challenge God, I’ve seen Bible quotes that make this point.

      Fair enough, but either God gets a pass or we can test claims about God. You can’t have it both ways.

  2. Aside from being asked my faith status (though I’m not sure how this affects one’s ability to evaluate evidence) …

    Your faith status is critical to evaluating evidence. For a true believer, only evidence for the effectiveness of prayer counts, evidence against does not.

    • Scientist: “I believe it because it’s true.”
      Religionist: “It’s true because I believe it.”

  3. And, as it happens, my own comment (much less polite than Bob’s) about how these all seemed like the kind of stories a con artist would make up got deleted. I had included one of my standard observations: “True believers have engaged in child rape, torture, mayhem, murder, and genocide, all for the greater glory of the Biblical God. What on Earth makes you think their consciences would bother them so much that they’d draw the line at mere lying, cheating, stealing, plagiarism, and forgery?” I guess they don’t draw the line at censorship, either.

    • (That web site is a bit wonky. Every time I post, I get a “didn’t work; try again” message, but it actually did work. I’m sorry to hear that you had bad luck with the censorship thing.)

  4. When I say I have faith in my doctor it’s precisely because of training, experience, knowledge and abilities. I certainly didn’t intend to imply that this was a biblical kind of faith. Perhaps I should have said “trust,” rather than “faith,” but I was trying to show the difference between unthinking religious/biblical faith and the kind of faith (i.e.: trust) in science/medicine.

    Dave

    • Oh, I was pretty sure that was what you MEANT, Dave, but every time you use the word “faith” when what you MEANT was “trust”, you assist the religionists in their efforts to conflate the 2, thereby lending the word “faith” a respectability that it hasn’t earned and doesn’t deserve. I go into this at greater length in a series of blog postings beginning here:
         http://richardsrussell.livejournal.com/2008/03/04/
      and ending here:
         http://richardsrussell.livejournal.com/2008/03/08/
      If you have only limited time, just read the latter.

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