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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Prayer Doesn’t Work as Advertised

Atheists, atheism, and Christian apologeticsThis is an excerpt from my book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey. A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of a famous pastor, doing his best to evangelize. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s study.

“Have you thought much about how prayer works?” Jim asked.

“The Bible tells us how: ‘Ask and ye shall receive.’”

“Does it really work that way? You just ask for things and then you get them?”

Paul breathed deeply to focus his mind. He had to think clearly. Jim’s arguments always seemed to trap him. “Well, no, of course not. And that frustrates some Christians. They don’t understand that they need to let God’s plan unfold for them. It may simply not be part of God’s plan to give you what you ask for right now. You can’t treat God as an all-powerful servant always at your elbow, fulfilling every whim that comes to mind. God isn’t a genie.”

Several white chess pieces—three pawns, a knight, and a bishop—lay on the center table. Though the table was not marked with a chessboard, Jim leaned forward and set them up on the table in their beginning positions. “Perhaps not, but ‘ask and ye shall receive’ is pretty straightforward. It makes God sound like a genie to me.”

“But that’s clearly not how prayer works.”

“I agree, but the Bible doesn’t. It makes plain that prayer is supposed to work that way—you ask for it, and then you get it. Prayer is a telephone call to God, and he always answers your call.”

“No—you’re misreading the Bible. It doesn’t say when you get it.”

Jim shook his head. “But it does say that you’ll get it.”

Paul tried another tack. “God answers every prayer, but sometimes the answer is No.”

“That’s not what the Bible says. Jesus said that if you have faith as tiny as a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains. Jesus said that prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. Jesus said that whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Jesus said that all things are possible to him who believes. Jesus said, ‘Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.’ No limitations or delays are mentioned.”

“Fine,” Paul said, clenching his teeth. “Fine.” He hated conceding ground, but he had no response.

“Okay,” Jim said, “let’s look at another aspect of prayer. When you pray, are you telling God something he doesn’t already know? That is, is prayer important because you’re informing God of some news, like ‘I’ve lost my job’ or ‘my brother has consumption’?”

“Certainly not—God is all-knowing. Obviously, he already understands your situation. It’s the asking part that’s important.”

“So you need to change it to ‘please help me get this new job’ or ‘please cure my brother’s consumption’?”

“That sounds better.”

Jim leaned forward. “But even this doesn’t make sense. God knows what’s best for you. For you to ask God to change his plans is presumptuous. It’s like an ant giving an engineer tips for designing a bridge. Will God think, ‘It’s best that you not get the new job, but since you asked nicely, I’ve changed my mind’? And maybe it’s simply part of his plan that your brother die from consumption.”

“But prayers are answered all the time! Lots of consumption patients can point to God as the reason they’re alive now.”

“Not with any justification. Let’s say Aunt May has an illness. She and her family pray, and then she gets well. She concludes that it was prayer and God’s intervention that cured her. But obviously there are other explanations, such as, that her treatment saved her. And if she had no treatment, perhaps it was simply her body healing itself.”

“And perhaps it was God!” Paul ached to pace around the room to burn off some of his tension, but he was a guest and thought better of it.

“Perhaps so, but you’re basing that on no evidence. I agree that we can’t rule out that it was God—or Vishnu or Osiris or a four-leaf clover. But we have no evidence that any of them did anything.” Jim was quickly running through different opening moves for his five chess pieces—tick, tick, tick as the pieces quickly struck the table, then a pause as he set them up again.

Paul wondered if his responses were so bland that Jim needed to play chess to keep his mind occupied.

Jim looked up and said, “The attraction of prayer in many cases is that it’s easier than doing the hard work yourself. Praying for a promotion is easier than doing what’s necessary to deserve a promotion. But let’s look at this from another angle. God has cured zero cases of birth defects—say, mental idiocy. We know this because zero cases have been cured by any cause, natural or supernatural. Millions of mothers have been devastated by the prospect of their children growing up with a disability or even dying an early death. Has God found none of their prayers worthy of an answer? Or amputations—there are probably men in your own church who have lost limbs due to war or injury. Has a single limb ever grown back? No. And since God has cured zero of these, maybe he has intervened in zero illnesses. That is, since God hasn’t performed any visible cures, maybe he hasn’t done any invisible ones, either.

“And think of the millions of people around the world who are starving. Prayers or no prayers, God apparently can’t be bothered to help them. If God is going to set aside the laws of physics and perform a miracle, is he to put my needs at the top of the list? If he won’t save a country starving during a famine, why should I think he’ll cure my rheumatism?”

Jim expanded his diversion, adding opposing black chess pieces to his imaginary board—three pawns and a knight from the other side of the table. He alternated moves from each side and held the captured pieces between his fingers so that the round bottoms embellished his hands like fat wooden rings.

“Consider smallpox,” Jim said as he set up the pieces for another mock game. “We don’t think of it much now, but it has been one of civilization’s most deadly diseases. In fact, the last smallpox outbreak in this country was here in Los Angeles, about thirty years ago. Suppose you have a large number of people who are vaccinated against smallpox and an equally large number who aren’t, and both groups are exposed to smallpox. Those who were vaccinated will do far better than those who don’t—regardless of who prays. You can look at this from the other direction—the high death rate from smallpox suggests that God’s plan is for it to be deadly. That is, vaccines interfere with God’s plan. Maybe we shouldn’t be using them.”

Every confident tick of a chess piece was a goad to Paul, a reminder that he was the novice in this discussion. Tick, tick, tick became “i-di-ot.” He said, “Maybe God doesn’t need to focus on smallpox anymore because science has stepped in. Maybe He’s focusing His miracle cures on diseases like consumption or cancer because that’s where the need still exists.”

“Did God ever focus on people with diseases?” Jim tossed away the chess pieces, and they clattered on the table. “Before vaccines, smallpox was life threatening. It killed hundreds of thousands of people every year. But in America, it’s now just a nuisance. Science has improved life expectancy; prayer hasn’t.”

Paul clenched the arms of his chair. “You can’t judge prayer with science,” he said, probably louder than he should have. “You can’t expect God to perform like a trained monkey at your command. It’s not our place, nor is it even possible, to judge God’s work. I agree that there are aspects of God’s actions that we just can’t explain. But I have the patience and the humility to accept God’s wisdom and wait for understanding. Perhaps I won’t understand until I get to heaven.”

“Fine, but if your argument is that you don’t understand, then say so. When asked, ‘Can we say that prayer gives results?’ the correct answer must then be ‘No, we cannot because we don’t understand.’ God might answer every prayer as you suggest, but we have no reason to believe that. A sufficient explanation is that prayers don’t appear to work because there is no God to answer them. The invisible looks very much like the nonexistent. Which one is God—invisible or nonexistent?”

Paul had no clever rebuttal, so he treated the question as rhetorical. “You’ve ignored praise,” he said. “That’s a vitally important reason for prayer. We humble ourselves before God and acknowledge that He can do what we can’t. It’s only appropriate to give thanks and praise to God.”

Jim snorted. “What’s the point in praising God? Surely God doesn’t need to hear how great he is. Is he that insecure that he needs constant reminding? Put this in human terms—do we curse insects for not acknowledging how important we are? Suppose we built a race of mechanical men. Would our first command to them be that they need to worship their human creators?”

“Are you unwilling to humble yourself before a greater power?”

“I’ll consider it when I know that such a power exists,” Jim said. “The picture of God that the writers of the Old Testament painted for us is that of a great king—a man with the wisdom of Solomon, the generalship of Alexander, and the physical strength of Hercules. And he apparently needs the fawning and flattering of a great king as well. You would think that God would be a magnification of all good human qualities and an elimination of the bad ones. But the small-minded, praise-demanding, vindictive, and intolerant God of the Bible is simply a caricature, a magnification of all human inclinations, good and bad. As Man becomes nobler, he loses these petty needs. Shouldn’t this be even more true of God?”

Jim leaned down and picked up a rumpled copy of a newspaper from the floor. “Let me show you something I read in this morning’s paper,” he said as he noisily flipped through a section. After a few moments he laid the newspaper on the table. “Here it is. It’s about a train accident in which eight people died. A woman was just released from the hospital, and here she says, ‘The doctors told my husband that I probably wouldn’t make it. But he prayed and prayed. And his prayers were answered—it was a miracle.’” Jim looked up. “So according to this, prayer works. But I must wonder if I understand the meaning of the word ‘works.’ Imagine if the utilities that we use so often—electricity, clean water, trains, mail delivery, and so on—worked no more reliably than prayer.”

“You’re mixing two different things,” Paul said. “You can’t judge the Almighty’s response to prayer in the same way that you judge something as artificial and profane as electricity.”

“Then don’t use the same word to describe their reliability. Prayer clearly does not ‘work’ as electricity does. And to compensate, the rules are rigged so that success is inevitable—if I get what I pray for, that’s God’s plan, and if I don’t get what I pray for, that’s also God’s plan. When a train crash kills eight people, and it’s called a miracle, how can God lose?” Jim slapped his hand on the newspaper. “But this makes praying to God as effective as praying to an old stump.”

Paul’s rebuttal lay scattered about him like a division of troops overrun by Jim’s argument. His fists were clenched, but he felt defenseless. “Are you saying that prayer has no value?”

“Many spiritual traditions across the world use meditation to clarify the mind or relax. Christian prayer can have these same benefits. A mature view acknowledges what you can’t control and can be an important part of facing a problem, but to imagine an all-powerful benefactor helping you out of a jam is simply to ignore reality. None of prayer’s benefits demand a supernatural explanation, and to imagine that prayer shows that God exists is simply to delude yourself. The voice on the other end of the telephone line is your own.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey is available in paperback or Kindle at Amazon.

James Dobson Needs My Money (and an Education)

Big wad of US currencyJames Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was good enough to send me a letter a few days ago.  Not a personal letter—he basically just wants me to give him some of my money—but a letter nonetheless.  He outlined some of his views about the Christian foundation our country was built on, reported how our country is going to hell in a jet-propelled handbasket, and made the irresistible swipe at homosexuality.

In case he forgot to send you one, I’ve highlighted a few interesting bits of his letter to reply to.

Our Founding Fathers clearly understood the relationship between Christian Truth and the stability of our (then) new nation. Here are just a few quotes that express that essential connection.

And he goes on to quote mine the founding fathers’ writings to find their most pro-Christian statements.

When pundits bring up quotes from the founders, you know that they’re out of arguments.  The U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, regardless of what the founders thought, wrote, or wanted.  They had their chance to define how the country should be run, and they seized it.  That document was revolutionary at the time and now, with a few amendments, effectively governs us more than two centuries later.  It supersedes the other writings of the founders.

Thomas Jefferson, … revisionists tell us, wanted a “wall of separation” to protect the government from people of faith.

No need for revisionists—Thomas Jefferson himself talked about “a wall of separation between church and state.”  And, to be precise, the First Amendment protects the people (whether or not of faith) from the government, not the other way around.

Dobson then goes on to give a long quote by Abraham Lincoln.  Well, not really by Lincoln.  This was a Senate resolution for a National Fast Day signed by Lincoln.  And this was the same Lincoln who said, “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad.  That’s my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “The Bible is not my book, and Christianity is not my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.”

The private Lincoln wasn’t the strong Christian that Dobson imagines.  (And it wouldn’t change the Constitution if he were.)

We are witnessing an unprecedented campaign to secularize our society and “de-moralize” our institutions from the top down. …  Most forms of prayer have been declared unconstitutional in the nation’s schools. The Ten Commandments have been prohibited on school bulletin boards. …  In this wonderful Land of the Free, we have gagged and bound all of our public officials, our teachers, our elected representatives, and our judges.

Again: read the Constitution.  Prayer should never have been allowed in schools.  Ten Commandments in courthouses or in schools?  Clearly out of step with the Constitution.

I don’t want to see Christian citizens gagged; I want them to have the same public speech rights that I do.  But when you’re acting as a public official, teacher, or elected representative, the rules are different.  The First Amendment demands that you create an unbiased environment.  Evangelism with prayer or religious documents is forbidden.  Dobson somehow finds this a shocking new realization, but the First Amendment was adopted in 1791.

As a secularist, I know when to stop.  I’m only asking that the First Amendment be followed.  I want no Christian preferences—such as “In God We Trust” as the motto, prayers before government meetings, Creationism in schools, crosses on public land, and so on—but when we have that situation, I will stop.  I’m not striving for a society where Christianity is illegal.  (See what a good friend a secular Constitution is for the Christian?)

But I see no stopping point on the other side, no fairly unambiguous standard that Christians are pushing for.  If they got prayer back in schools, what would be next?

Since we have effectively censored their expressions of faith in public life, the predictable is happening: a generation of young people is growing up with very little understanding of the spiritual principles on which our country was founded. And we wonder why so many of them can kill, steal, take drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex with no pangs of conscience.

I wonder what happens when Christianity fades away?  Does that society devolve into the post-apocalyptic Mad Max world that Dobson imagines?

Let’s compare other Western societies to find out.  Looking at quantifiable social metrics (homicides, incarceration, juvenile mortality, STDs, abortions, adolescent pregnancies, marriage duration, income disparity, and so on) in 17 Western countries, a 2009 study concluded: “Of the 25 socioeconomic and environmental indicators, the most theistic and procreationist western nation, the U.S., scores the worst in 14 and by a very large margin in 8, very poorly in 2, average in 4, well or very in 4, and the best in 1.”1

Ouch—religiosity is inversely correlated with social health.  Sorry, Dr. Dobson.

It is breathtaking to see how hostile our government has become to traditional marriage, and how both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly antagonistic to parental rights, Christian training, and the financial underpinnings of family life.

I assume that “hostile … to traditional marriage” refers to same-sex marriage.

Help me understand this.  At a time when Christian traditionalists like Dobson lament the high divorce rate and the acceptability of couples living together and even having children without the benefit of marriage, they dismiss a group that is actually embracing marriage.

Same-sex marriage is a celebration of marriage, not an attack.

The hope of the future is prayer and a spiritual renewal that will sweep the nation. It has happened before, and with concerted prayer, could occur again. …  If we continue down the road we are now traveling, I fear for us all.

Yeah, following the rise in Christian fundamentalism does sound like a worrisome future.  We’ve seen that secular, gay-loving Europe eclipses the U.S. in social metrics.

Candidly, this ministry continues to struggle financially, and our very survival will depend on the generosity of our constituents in the next two months.

Translated: “Give me some money.”

Please pray with us about the future of this ministry.

Translated: “Give me some money.”  (I’ve written before about how prayer requests of this sort admit that prayer is useless.)

I suppose that this kind of lashing out at other people brings in the money.  But it’d be nice to see more credible arguments.

1Gregory Paul, “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions,” Evolutionary Psychology, (2009).  7(3): 416.

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The Bible Shows Why Prayer Doesn’t Work

Illuminated (illustrated) manuscript I think I’ve figured it out!  The Bible itself makes clear why prayer doesn’t work, and the clues are all from within the same gospel, Matthew.

I’ve heard stories of people in fast food restaurants who aren’t content to simply pray to themselves but stand and pray aloud for everyone’s benefit.  Jesus isn’t keen on these pretentious people.

When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  (Matt. 6:5–6)

But later in the same book, Jesus says something different.

If two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.  (Matt. 18:19–20)

There’s the problem—prayer requires both a gathering and being by yourself.

No wonder it never works!

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Do We Really Trust in God?

Do Christians really trust in God, like it says on the money?Is it really true that “In God we trust”?  With what do we trust him?  It might indeed make Christians feel warm and fuzzy to see that motto on U.S. currency, but do they actually believe it?

This was the question recently asked in an excellent article, “In God We (Do Not) Trust.”

Using prayer as a little extra insurance when times are tough is one thing.  But who would pray instead of using evidence-based means?  Who would pray for safe passage across a busy street rather than looking and using good judgment?  Who would pray to fix a car?  Who would pray for healing rather than use a cure proven effective by modern medicine?

That is, who would actually trust that God will take care of important things without some sort of safety net?

Indeed, the government has made clear that that’s not the way things work.  In response to preventable deaths among minors within the Followers of Christ church, a Christian denomination, Oregon recently removed laws protecting parents who rejected medical care for their children in favor of faith healing.

As the article says about faith healing,

It is tantamount to the state saying, “Sure, it looks great on a coin, but come on you idiot, it’s not as though this god stuff actually works.”

For atheists, “In God We Trust” on currency and as the official motto of the United States is one of those pick-your-battles things.  It’s in blatant violation of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”), but issues such as injury from faith healing are more important and deserve more attention.

But let’s look for a moment at what we discarded to make room for this motto.  E Pluribus Unum (Latin for “Out of many, one”) was the de facto motto before the adoption of “In God We Trust” in 1956.  That certainly showed those atheist commies which side of the theological fence we were on.  But this came at a price.

One trait that is special about America is that we’re composed of people who came from all over the world to pull in the same direction to make a great country.

Out of Many, One.  Which country would this motto fit better than America?  Out of Many, One—a custom-made inspirational reminder of who we are and where we came from.

And we flushed it down the toilet in favor of “In God We Trust,” a one-size-fits-all poncho that could be worn by a hundred countries.

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