Praying doesn’t work, but don’t tell anyone; or Popping other people’s bubbles

I’m sure we all agree on the effectiveness of prayer on future outcomes (hint: it’s none). There are plenty of arguments against the power of prayer in the supposed presence of an omnipotent and omniscient god, some are purely logical, requiring no empirical data. This anecdote, however, begins with a controlled experiment regarding the healing abilities of prayer in groups of patients, recovering from heart surgery.

This 2006 study showed (not surprisingly) that there was absolutely no positive effects in being prayed for, but there were a couple of negative ones. Patients were separated into three groups of 600: a control group, not prayed for or told anything; a group which was prayed for and told so; and a last one which was prayed for but not told anything. Death rates and major complications where ungodly (or godly?) similar for all three groups. Minor complications were present in 52% of the patients from the control group, 51% of patients from the prayed-for-but-not-told group, and 59% of patients that were prayed for and told so. It seems the stress of knowing someone’s praying for you outweighs the clinical benefits of prayer itself (hint: none, remember?). In a swift stroke of the pen of science: praying doesn’t work.

I was discussing this study, as well as other logical proofs, with someone some time ago when it happened. As I neared the end of my argument and said – not aggressively or with arrogance, but in tone with the conversation – that I did not believe prayer worked she burst into tears. I’d seen her cry before, of course, but the suddenness of it, the speed with which her face melted not into anger or sorrow but plain despair… to that point in my life I’d never been so horrified, felt so horrible. She was at the moment going through some rough terrain in her life, dealing with depression, medication and trouble in her family, this much I knew. What I did not know was that she prayed constantly for things to get better and other things to happen (hint: they didn’t), and that this faith in prayer kept her in several occasions from doing stupid things. For someone to suggest that prayer was powerless (other than as a self-deluding meditation) was the most monstrous, inhumane thing to do. We’ve all read the arguments for faith and its therapeutic properties, but those tears are the only thing that have made me doubt the ‘righteousness’ of truth.

I know prayer can get in the way of real help, I know faith-healing, even as a last resort, is a terrible thing that causes additional emotional pain. I can’t remember the last time I prayed and I don’t want to do it again, but is praying in itself so evil, even when it’s done privately, that it is better to remove it painfully? Who is responsible for those tears: is it truth for showing it’s uncaring face or is it faith for deceiving in the first place? And does it matter who is to blame when she cries just the same?

I guess the only lesson is to be careful around people, not for fear of hurting their beliefs but of hurting them, especially when they are someone you care about. Each situation should be carefully analyzed and thought about critically. And so I guess the truth isn’t always the best choice.


~ by vandrerol on 2009.February.6.

One Response to “Praying doesn’t work, but don’t tell anyone; or Popping other people’s bubbles”

  1. Yes, sometimes the truth is unreasonably cruel and the compassionate thing to do is to lie or conceal it. For example, telling someone who is dying that their belief in an after-life with a loving god has no basis in reality is crass and inhumane. At other times the person may be able to deal with reality, but only if they have a supportive person or group to help them through the pain of coming to terms with a reality they would prefer was otherwise, at least until they learn to be comfortable with the new perspective.

    I guess this is why non-believers do not, as a general rule, try to foist their non-belief onto others in the manner of evangelical believers in a supernatural world. This is particularly true of those who have de-converted from such a belief and gone through a painful process themselves.

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