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.”
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,