Thursday, April 08, 2010

Prayer, Science and Haiti

When the devastating Haitian earthquake happened several months ago I, like many of you, was overwhelmed with the awfulness of that great tragedy. As the media began to flood in pictures and videos of mothers being torn from their children and houses falling on top of families I sat, with all of you, feeling immeasurably impotent to help my fellow human beings as their entire world sank into hell.

I was encouraged and humbled to see both secular and religious organizations pool their collective resources in order to send medical attention and funds to Haiti in order to rescue and rebuild. The arts community, which I am unendingly proud to be a part of and a community that ALWAYS gives during tragedy, did its part by playing countless shows and giving away tons of music with all proceeds going to Haiti.

World calamity has a way of putting a shot in the arm of human solidarity. People become kinder, gentler and astonishingly altruistic. There is a large debate about WHY human beings react to tragedy this way. One side gives supernatural reasons, as if human solidarity wouldn’t exist without laws, rewards, and punishments from gods. The other side posits natural explanations such as a hundred thousand years of group cooperation through which evolution has given us a collective shared value of pain avoidance and empathy. At any rate, I’m not writing this to hash out that debate. I think what I have to say applies to both camps and can be agreed upon in practice, if not in doctrine.

Alongside the many laudable efforts coordinated to bring tangible relief to Haiti, there also unsurprisingly arose a barrage of petitions to pray for those suffering from the tragic event. It seems that Twitter and Facebook status updates were bursting with pious accolades about prayer. At the time, being as passionate about my secular humanist worldview as I am, I wrote this on Twitter, followed by a link to an organization that made it very simple to donate to a secular Haitian relief fund through your mobile phone:

“Believing friends, please consider this more practical alternative to helping Haitians”

This phrase caused remarkable consternation amongst my friends and enemies alike. How dare I suggest that prayer is not just as practical as donating money? In fact, if God really is the all loving, all knowing, and all merciful being that most Christians believe Him to be, and further if this god is somehow moved to act by the sheer will of his people, then praying is THE MOST practical thing one can do in the face of such a harrowing event. I wanted to take a few moments and respond to you, friend and enemy, about my comment.

1. The wording of my petition was intentionally less intense than how I actually feel about prayer. I find it to be an absolutely childish waste of time and energy and an offense to the suffering people you claim to be helping. But notice that I said “please consider” a “more practical” alternative. I recognize that I will live and die as a minority in this day and age processing information about the world as a non-theist. I also recognize that the believing person is so insanely defensive and insulated from criticism about his/her beliefs that the only way to effectively plead for rational action is to tread lightly (on my grumpier days I refer to this as “babying”). I’m not overly concerned that you believe me, but as a matter of fact (hopefully facts matter to you) I wanted to word that phrase in such a way that was thoughtful about my believing friends who I know want to help the suffering as much as I do, and at the same time pointed to a fact that is subversively obvious to all of us, whether we believe in the efficacy of prayer or not (more on this in point 3). I’m fairly certain I accomplished this from my end.

2. It’s true that prayer does not work. At least insofar as we know that things are true. So, how do we know that things are true? Do we use our common sense? One writer humorously notes that our common sense is what tells us the earth is flat. Is it what we feel? How do we distinguish what we feel as truth when feelings can be so easily manipulated by chemical changes in the brain? Do we simply believe truth based on authority? How can we find the Holocaust repugnant? Is truth decided by consensus? Well then perhaps we should all consider Islam a reasonable belief system since there around 1.4 billion of its followers walking the Earth.

You and I both know how we know things are true. We look at the evidence. Almost every decision you make in your day to day life is predicated on the success of the scientific method and evidence. When you plan your vacation you consult weather experts who use meteorological instruments to make the best possible predictions about weather patterns. When you invest the money you work hard for you consult the hard data of stock trends or hire financial experts who consult the hard data of stock trends. When you’re trying to decide which toothpaste is going to help you get laid easier, you read reviews and are naturally swayed by the recommendation of your personal dentist. When your child is sick you rely on your family physician to make a decision based on the education he has received about medicine developed in labs that withstood the rigorous tests of falsification and failure. This is hardly disputable.

Now, all of these things (and many, many more) are verified by testing hypothesis through considering every variable and having the conclusions replicated in the same conditions and with immunity to falsification. This is the scientific method and it is likely the most important mechanism for discovery ever utilized by the human species. I say all of this because the effects of intercessory prayer have been tested many times. I will point you to the largest study done to date, the STEP Prayer Project and leave it to you to do your own research. The short of it is that NONE of them have yielded any results that suggest anything outside of normal laws of probability. This is important and this matters. Do not believe the lie your pastors tell you about the scientific community being biased towards the supernatural. If prayer was actually a practical way of dealing with suffering that would be one of the most impacting discoveries in human history. The STEP Prayer Project was even funded by the Templeton Foundation, a theistic organization that gives a SHITLOAD of money to people who are trying to prove the existence of god through science.

So as far as we know from the data, and again this is how you make nearly every decision of your day to day life, I was pretty much totally correct to consider the donation of money to a reputable relief fund more practical than donating thoughts to a god.

3. You KNOW this is true and you prove it every day. Just today I had a lovely lunch with my sweet, beautiful grandmother. As you may imagine she is a devout Christian and although she does not hedge any of her beliefs around me, she has been very accepting and gracious to me about spiritual language. I do not talk religion with anyone in my family unless they invite me to (they usually do) so we were having a conversation about a woman she works with who is going through a hard time. She remarked that this young girl always calls her in troubled times and asks for prayer. The last time she called, my grandmother, who was lovingly fed up with this young woman’s constant self-destructive relationships with dubious men, replied, “Honey, how about we stop praying for a bit and actually DO something to change your life.” I swear to the COSMOS my grandmother had no idea I was writing this piece today. If I didn’t know better I might mistakenly refer to this coincidence as a “god-thing.”

I digress.

The point is that even my deeply religious and sincerely believing grandmother recognizes the ineffectual nature of prayer. Her great care for this young woman pushed her to the point of suspending the mumbo jumbo, rolling her sleeves up and GETTING TO WORK.

Now other than being a less beautiful human being, you are no different from my grandmother. When you want to lose 15 pounds try praying about it while you eat Doritos and watch Seinfeld reruns and see how helpful that is. When you want a promotion try praying about it and watch your more ambitious, harder working peer get it instead. And more seriously, when your children are sick do you pray about it or do you take them to a qualified and reputable physician? What if your pharmacist gave you a prescription that could mean life and death to your child and instead of offering you the comfort of intense peer review as well as FDA certification he told you he had prayed about it? This is self-evident. So why keep up the pretenses?


I pray because I know that it changes reality.

No it doesn’t. There has never been a documented miracle published in any peer reviewed science journal. Most cases are explained simply and easily by medicine (directly through treatment or indirectly through a placebo effect) or natural causes. I once asked a friend who claimed to believe in miracles to prove it. She told me that god healed her mother’s cancer. She actually played the cancer card! Through a mutual friend I learned that her mother had undergone extensive radiation therapy at one of the top hospitals in the country. And yet her remission was miraculous? There has never been a miraculous regeneration of a severed limb? Why is that? Does God hate the amputees as this insightful website asks? Or is there no god?

I pray because it makes me a better person.

Well, perhaps it does in which case it still stands to reason that offering prayer to suffering human beings is the least practical option for helping imaginable.

What if I pray AND offer practical help to the suffering?

Obviously this is preferable. But let’s see which one works, shall we? And this brings up another point. How is it that when people pray for something like a loved one battling cancer that when the outcome is positive (Uncle Albert survived cancer!) God gets the credit but when the outcome is negative (Uncle Albert died in excruciating pain as cancer ate away his internal organs) God is still great but He just has mysterious ways? This is perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment of insulation to criticism I’ve ever heard of.

You’re a Meany!

Perhaps it is cruel of me to use such strong language in a culture that highly values things like prayer. My intentions are not to be mean to you or steal anything away from you. My intentions are to passionately seek the truth. And in the wake of such calamity and devastation as our fellow human beings endured (and are still enduring) in Haiti I can’t imagine a more important time to believe in true things and reject false things.

I take no pleasure in conflict for conflicts sake. But I will gladly start a sticky dialogue, even to the consternation of my friends and enemies, in order to bear out truth. In light of all these things I still consider my original statement true and I stand by it. I hope you will thoughtfully consider more practical alternatives to prayer as you walk your many lovely roads that will, no doubt, lay punctuated with suffering.

Yours in reason,

Clint Wells


Jen said...

I totally agree.

I think telling someone you're praying for them can provide them with hope and comfort, which has tangible effects on mental health, which is important in its own right but also has been shown to influence physical health. The same effect could probably just be reached by saying "Hullo, I care deeply for you, I seriously think you are going to make it through this," but saying you're praying has a special effect for people who believe it works.

But I agree that physical help is obviously, ehm, more tangible and more practical, like you're saying.

Also, I have heard legend of someone having a limb regenerated, but I have no way of verifying it.

Robert said...

Would you be offended if Christians prayed malediction over your blog (for example)?

Clint Wells said...

Robert - I wouldn't be offended, I would just find it utterly ridiculous and perfectly at home with voodoo doctors and witch spells and other nonsense.

I also want to clarify something. I'm not personally offended people desiring to pray for Haiti. People can do whatever they want as long as it harms no one. I don't give a shit.

What personally offended me was when people, some I love and some I do not love, thought I was out of line for properly criticising prayer as an effective way of helping suffering people.

Regarding prayer, I'm not pleading for people to stop offending me. I'm pleading with them to behave rationally.

So, curse away!

Jen said...

I was thinking more about this, and about the general claim that the scientific method is the only reliable way to come about truth. Here is my question/comment to you.

The scientific method nearly always leads to reliable information. However, this does not mean that its rigor does not exclude some truthful information. So, you can choose only to believe things that have been verified by the scientific method and know with certainty that all of those bits of information are true. Rationally, you would only be able to maintain agnosticism about all of those claims which cannot be verified by the scientific method.

I know you are aware of this. But you also seem to believe that it is safer, better, more rational never to believe things that cannot be scientifically verified, which assumes that all truth critical to human well-being and flourishing is scientifically verifiable. Why would you assume that?

I am not talking about Pascal's Wager, and I am certainly not suggesting you believe "the gospel" because the risk of hell outweighs the unpleasantness of living by Christian rules. That idea fails to consider the probability that hell exists. But don't you think it's probable that some things may happen in the universe which are not repeatable in a controlled setting?

A man from my church, Mr. Ted Steedman, had a heart attack and died for 30 minutes. The doctors called the time of death, gave up, left the room, and then 30 minutes later, another man walked in and prayed over him. During the prayer, Ted's heart started beating again, his eyes opened, he came back from death. Now, this is the only instance I have ever heard of this sort of thing happening, and there are obviously a million factors that could disprove this miracle. Maybe the doctors called the time of death prematurely, for instance. But the bottom line is, this situation is not reproducible, and the assertion that it has a scientific explanation is just as much a faith claim as the assertion that God intervened. It's possible that statistically, this sort of thing would happen about as frequently as it does. But when you actually look at the specific situation, it really looks like the prayer may have had something to do with it.

And these sorts of things occur not that infrequently. A fella named William James posited that if you look through a scientific lens at people's accounts of religious experiences, certain patterns start to emerge, and a case can be made for religious experiences/miracle accounts as a type of empirically classifiable phenomena. It makes sense that they wouldn't be reproducible, as they depend on a supposed being somewhere in the universe that isn't summonable through tried and tested methods. But there seem to be enough common characteristics to make a case for their legitimacy. if ya ask me.

And this is why I think one can be rational and still believe that prayer may change something, and that God exists. Of course, giving someone food will CERTAINLY change something, granted. But this doesn't mean that anyone suggesting alternative means is somehow irrational.

trippethridge said...

If people would have closed their eyes tighter when they prayed in those studies the numbers would have been OFF THE CHARTS!

Patrick said...

Clint, I pray because it changes me.

Anonymous said...

I thought your post was very interesting. Made me think. I would argue that you left off one reason why people pray, which is to change their own hearts. I agree with you that many times people use prayer as a "cop out" for actually doing something. I myself have been guilty of this. I have found that prayer along with a loving action is very effective. But many times I think it is through prayer that our hearts and minds are removed from ourselves for a moment and are directed toward others. I also believe that through prayer, the Lord can reveal things to us that we could DO to help them. (Sidebar: I am not saying that people who don't pray do not think about others and how they can help them. I think everyone regardless of religious affiliation has some sort of quiet medidtation time in which they think on others.) This has been my experience anyway.
I also agree with your friend Jen who says that prayer has positive emotional effects on people. I have experienced this first hand. Rob and I have been going through a really tough time getting our family started, and I truly believe that the prayers of others have lifted me up on days when I didn't think I could make it. Days when I didn't want to keep going, but somehow the strength to make it through refreshed me. Our physical situation has not changed, but our emotional situation has been lifted up and encouraged.
I also think that sometimes there is nothing physical we can do; no action we can perform. Like in mine and Rob's situation, there is really nothing anyone can DO to help us (except for our adoption social workder). In situations like that I think prayer is a very appropriate response. If they can't physically meet the needs of the person in question, they can contribute to the "emotional health" that your friend Jen mentioned.
I hope I have not rambled here. Not really trying to convince you or change your mind about things; just wanted to share how prayer has been effective in my own life. Bottom line, I know our friendship is strong and deep enough that we can agree to disagree. You might think my post is hogwash, and that's okay. Rob and I love you no matter what your theology or non-theology is.

Amy (and Rob) Wood

P.S. Does it offend you for people to tell you they are praying for you? Just curious, because Rob and I have prayed for you. We have prayed that you would find the answers you are seeking. :)

Anonymous said...

Clint, if it is as Elie Wiesel said and God did go up the chimney of a crematory somewhere in Poland, all logic and human rationality did too.

There is nothing reasonable in this world. There is nothing rational in this world. Nothing makes sense. Not capital markets. Not medicine. And all reason and philosophy and logic is about as useful as a toilet seat when what you need is a life preserver. (That's a reference to Melville, not an obscure reference to the Christian gospel. Although Melville might have intended it that way in retrospect. But probably not in re-retrospect.)

God forbid, that you (or I) ever find ourselves in some other kind of Auchwitz. There we will perforate our philosophy texts and put them on a roll because in those liminal hells that human beings continually inhabit at any given moment in any given place, we will see that human reason is dust and our own brains are the most fragile thing attached to our feeble bodies.

We'll be praying then. Because prayer is something you do when all reason fails you and you can't do anything else. Logic is a nice warm blanket we wrap around our fat bodies when we still sit in comfortable chairs. And although we do suffer, we haven't yet truly tested our own capacities to endure.

Wow. I'm glad I'm not a nihilist because this could really get depressing.


Clint Wells said...

Jen – The first part of your comment about rationally maintaining agnosticism due to certain truths unattainable by the scientific method reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s famous “celestial teapot.”

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving around the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

I also don’t see too many people who are agnostic about Zeus or Poseidon or Ishtar.

You said:

”… you also seem to believe that it is safer, better, more rational never to believe things that cannot be scientifically verified, which assumes that all truth critical to human well-being and flourishing is scientifically verifiable. Why would you assume that?”

I interpret the world through methodological naturalism, which is heralded as the underlying principle all of modern science. It requires that hypotheses be explained and tested only by reference to natural causes and events. I presume when you posit non-verifiable truth you are talking about abstract concepts like love, beauty, morality, logic, minds, number values, etc. There is a great body of scientific work, particularly in the field of neurobiology, which explains these things rather well without any dogmatism.

You said:

“… don't you think it's probable that some things may happen in the universe which are not repeatable in a controlled setting?”

Sure. That’s what the entire field of quantum theory is about. Seemingly random phenomenon at the sub-atomic level. Some theologians are even attempting to use quantum mechanics to prove the existence of God. But right now we are smashing electrons into one another using particle accelerators to understand these things. The more we know, the less we need to refer to phenomenon as magic, mystery or supernatural. I have no reason to believe that this will not continue into explaining what we now consider to be untestable. Science is only 400 years old so it’s too soon to relegate things to being unexplainable.

Clint Wells said...

Jen - The story about your friend is truly remarkable. However, it is not a faith claim to assume that his heart starting beating for natural reasons. You say yourself there are many natural reasons this could happen. I’m not a cardiologist but I suspect that although it is rare, sometimes hearts start beating again. Consider this: If someone told you that Napoleon Bonaparte’s grave was empty, would you assume he rose from the dead or would you assume that someone stole his body? If you assumed that someone stole his body would you really consider that a faith claim? There is a magnificent tool in science called Occam’s razor which essentially states that when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better. So did God metaphysically alter reality based on this one man’s prayer to resuscitate another man’s heart? Or did his heart naturally start beating again for rare but plausible reasons? I obviously land on the natural explanation and I hope you will too.

You said:

“And this is why I think one can be rational and still believe that prayer may change something, and that God exists. Of course, giving someone food will CERTAINLY change something, granted. But this doesn't mean that anyone suggesting alternative means is somehow irrational.”

Given a certain set of assumptions anything can be rational. If you assume that there is a God that not only hears your prayers but sometimes alters reality based on them then of course it is rational to pray. What is irrational is calling prayer a practical alternative to help the suffering when there is no good reason (evidence) to believe that it actually helps people. If someone said they were rubbing a rabbit’s foot or kissing a special horseshoe or hopping on one foot while juggling 18 bowling balls for Haiti I’d tell them the same thing and so would you. So what’s the difference?

Clint Wells said...

Tripp – Two words: Tru Dat!

Patrick – When you say you pray because it changes you, what are you talking about? I ask because that’s a sentence I used to say a lot when I was a Christian and looking back I now realize that it was fairly meaningless. Sincere, but without any real content.

If prayer is just about changing you then what is the difference between prayer and eastern meditation? All human beings can benefit from being quiet and reflecting on themselves and other people, especially the suffering. But this is also disingenuous because when people were “praying for Haiti” I doubt any of them would say they were praying for their own self-transformation. That would actually be pretty fucked up.

Most people believe they are praying to a God that changes reality. So is God changing you during prayer? Why would he change your thoughts and your feelings and not change (or prevent) a devastating natural disaster that took the lives of thousands of children?

To say that prayer changes you really just sounds like mumbo jumbo. And even if it does, it’s still not a practical alternative to helping the suffering in our world.

Clint Wells said...

Susan – I don’t really understand your comment. You said:

“There is nothing reasonable in this world. There is nothing rational in this world. Nothing makes sense. Not capital markets. Not medicine. And all reason and philosophy and logic is about as useful as a toilet seat when what you need is a life preserver.”

Wow, I could not disagree with you more. And I don’t think one must endure Auchwitz to attain the credibility to criticize irrational belief systems. I know that is not directly what you’re saying, but it is implied. I agree that our brains are fragile and that cold reason can be a complex source of comfort, but to throw those things out because they don’t coddle our “fat bodies”? No thanks.

It’s hard to say what I will do when faced directly with my own mortality. After all I am an evolved, pattern seeking, agent identifying primate. Superstition and dogma are wired into my DNA for survival. But I do hope that when faced with death I will not resort to wish fulfillment or delusion. I hope that I will have a strong, sound mind and the knowledge that I lived a good life filled with love and work and beauty.

Nihilism is a dark, dark worldview and nowhere is it espoused as acutely as in the book of Ecclesiastes, located in the heart of the Christian bible.

Clint Wells said...

Amy – Thanks for the comment. I think I’ve answered a lot of what you had to say in the previous comment responses. I can’t really argue with your subjective experience. But I can say that I never felt anything supernatural from people praying for me. My grandmother actually asked me on Christmas morning if I felt anything and when I asked her why she said because she had been praying for me a lot. I didn’t take any pleasure in seeing her disappointment when I said no, but I told her that it made me feel good to know that she was thinking about me and that she cared.

I would like to point you to a very short essay called Thank Goodness by Daniel Dennett that I think explains my position well. You can read it here:

I don’t mind that you guys pray for me, it’s nice to know that you guys care. I hope you will not mind that I am not praying for you. But know that I love you both so much and I think of you often and I wish that I had the power to change your situation. But I don’t and all I can say is that I love you and I would do anything for the both of you. Let’s hang soon!

Anonymous said...

I don't intend to imply you must be a victim of a Holocaust to disavow anything. All you need is a means to do so. Some will find it credible. Some won't.

What I do mean to say is that when we encounter places in time/space where human suffering is at an apex, we see how useless everything is. I mean to say that ability to reason at all is a luxury.

What can I say? Your journey through church made you an atheist. Mine made me a nihilist. Of a sort. :-)

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add that I was definitely contemplating Ecclesiastes when I wrote that original reply. It is a VERY dark worldview. Neitzsche had nothing on Solomon.

I might also suggest that Christianity is also dark. We just don't want to admit it because it disrupts our cute worship services. (And that's why I..and once upon a time you..were once so drawn to Catholicism.)

Jen said...

Clint - Thanks for your response. All I am saying, really, is that it seems unlikely that human knowledge has no limits, and although our ability to explain the world's operations has grown steadily for at least hundreds of years, I don't think that's a good reason to assume it will grow indefinitely and without limit. People thought that home property values would continue to grow indefinitely, we assume population will continue to rise indefinitely, the value of the dollar, etc. But everything has its limit. And so it seems more sensible to me to at least leave room for the mysterious and for the transcendent. I am not talking about any mysterious or transcendent being in particular. I am saying, it does not seem unreasonable to posit that there could be something more.

But, I went to church in Nashville last weekend, and have recently stumbled on some Christian bloggers that make me want to shoot myself in the head, and so, I think, I am able to understand a little more why you feel compelled to write these posts you write, which makes me much less interested in disagreeing with you. The people of faith I interact with on a daily basis operate in a completely different world than your basic evangelical, and so I forget sometimes what it is you are responding to. Party on.