In all honesty, if you've ever taken the time to read "Why Won't God Heal Amputees?" then none of this should be new to you. But it is my take on some of the ideas presented there with a couple of new bits thrown in. If you haven't read it then why the hell not? It is much better than anything I've ever written on the topic!
How do people get sick anyway?
When the health scares hit it occurred to me that the religious in my family would no doubt be urging prayer and praying themselves, and I did get one "God bless" sent my way. And all I could think was, "If prayer worked, then these people wouldn't be sick, would they?" After all, people don't ask for health scares or medical emergencies in their prayers do they? People don't pray along the lines of "Dear God, please send me or a family member a stroke." Do they? No, of course not. What they pray for is good health for themselves and their loved ones. The fact that people get sick shows, in my opinion, that at best God isn't always listening to prayers or that a great many self proclaimed religious people only pray when they think they really need to, and then usually out of fear or greed. At worst (at least for those who believe prayer works) the fact that people get sick is further proof that prayer doesn't work.
If God answers prayers, if prayer actually does work, if God can actually grant prayers, then why do people get sick? Nobody prays for themselves or a loved one to develop an illness, so how is it that people get sick? Shouldn't the only sick people be the atheist, agnostic or non-practising?
Not that old Chestnut...
This leads to another old chestnut that skeptics and atheists have long talked about: How God can't lose.
People pray for others to get better when they are ill. When they do so, and the person gets better, more often than not people will grant the recovery to God and prayer, to either a great or a small extent. But, if God has the power to cure an illness, doesn't he have the power to prevent one? But do you ever hear someone saying that a loved ones cancer is God's fault? Apart from scum like Fred Phelps and the truly fanatical gloating over the deaths of people who don't hold to the same superstitions, do you ever hear people blaming bad things on God? No, you don't. Because bad things are not God's fault, apparently. If there are 1,000 people on a sinking ship and 1 of them survives, some people will inevitably call it a miracle and attribute it to God. That 999 died is ignored. Miracles are God's work apparently, tragedies not so much. The thing that is ignored is that if God can save 1 person, he can save the other 999 and yet didn't. But no-one blames God for 999 deaths. They praise him for 1 life saved. In other words, no matter what, God can't lose. Bad things aren't his doing, but good things are.
A good recent example of this is the so called "Miracle on the Hudson". Of course, some people immediately gave the credit for this remarkable and extraordinary piece of flying to God - people immediately started calling it a miracle. Some even got upset when the pilot didn't himself attribute the landing to God. But, if this one triumph of skill and preparation was God's work and not the crew of flight 1549, then he is very hit and miss. But does anyone ever blame God for not doing anything? For allowing these other accidents to happen?
Mulling over these sorts of questions recently prompted me to post this on my Facebook status:
Instead of letting people get sick and then apparently curing them after a harrowing experience for all involved, how about not letting them get sick in the first place?
...PS. And why do you always wait until after the medical attention from dedicated professionals, what's that about? Makes it look like maybe it wasn't you at all...
The same could be said for almost any bad experience that a person goes through where a successful outcome is subsequently attributed to God. If God can cure the sickness, then God let them get sick in the first place. Wouldn't it be much more loving to not let them get sick anyway? At the very least it is a lot less showy. It's kind of like setting a building alight so you can impress people with your firefighting skills, isn't it? If God has the power to improve people's lives by curing them then how about he just stops them getting sick in the first place? Everyone's time is saved and no-one has to go through any horrific or traumatic or painful illnesses.
In fact, if you are a believer in Intelligent Design or creationism then you readily accept that illness is God's doing. In fact, if you are a Biblical literalist, you readily accept that illness and death are God's doing. So, how come no-one blames God for getting people sick, but they do praise him for curing people, even when the Bible specifically says sickness and death are God's doing?
Would you praise and thank a person for deliberately breaking someones arm because they then applied a splint and/or sling? Or would you call them a sociopath and lock them up?
At the end of the day, if you believe in God, then you'd have to say that the very least God can do is make people better because GOD caused them to get sick in the first place. The fact that he makes you grovel before he does it should really cause any right thinking person to pause for thought.
Instead of saving 1 person from the sinking ship, why not save everyone by not letting the ship sink? Instead of taking credit for a breathtaking feat of airmanship, how about you don't let the plane crash in the first place? And why do it so rarely? Why save flight 1549 but not the hundreds of others?
Think about it - does anyone pray "Dear God, please wake my wife from this coma, but it is OK if you give her severe brain damage and make her quadriplegic." People wake up from a coma and it is called a miracle and thanks is given to God - the fact that they have other major health problems as a result is ignored.
So God can't lose. If it is good, it's God. If it's bad well then it is bad luck, human error, free will, the arbitrary horror of nature, an unfortunate set of coincidences etc etc. Why does God get all the credit and none of the blame?
For instance, someone I know through work underwent very aggressive chemo and surgery for some very serious cancer problems last year. When the cancer appeared to be beaten an e-mail went around that finished with "See, prayer really works." - God got the credit. Since the cancer now appears to be back and the illness possibly terminal, do you think God will get the blame? Do you think the person claiming that prayer beat the illness will now re-examine that belief and retract it? Of course not, because God can't lose.
Health, medicine and prayer
OK. Let's assume that through some hand waving, post hoc rationalisations, openly honest avoidance or by just plain ignoring them, these questions are answered or ignored by the believer in the power of prayer. A person is sick and they, being a believer and having health insurance that allows, are taken to a religious hospital. There, because of the healing power of prayer, they are greeted by a member of the clergy, or a preacher, or some religious representative. From there they are taken into a special chapel where a group of devout believers will pray to their god and a cure is miraculously received. Oh wait no that isn't what happens, is it?
No, what happens is they receive science based medical treatment, surgical interventions, drug therapies, physical therapy and a great deal of attention from trained medical professionals who may or may not be religious.
But doesn't that strike you as odd?
If healing prayers work, why do religious hospitals need medical staff and treatment facilities? Why does a religious hospital need any of the trappings of modern medicine if prayer works? Why does a religious hospital need an ER, OR, ICU, PACU, NICU, IMCU, rehab unit? Why does a religious hospital need a pharmacy, ventilators, heart rate monitors, IVs, X-Ray machines, needles, scalpels, sutures, wound vacuums, suction pumps, pulmonary bypass units, wound therapy mattresses?
If prayer really works, and God does exist, then why does he/she need so much help? How come God only cures people after they have received all that other conventional medical treatment and why is it he/she who gets to claim the cure and not the medical team? And why do these miracle cures often take so long instead of being instant? Are people really praying "Dear Lord, please cure this cancer. But not for six months."
Shouldn't a religious hospital merely consist of enough amenities to keep a person comfortable and then a quiet room on each floor filled with devout hospital employees who pray for each patient? I mean, they do believe in the healing power of prayer don't they? Don't they?
They must do. Taking just the religious facilities I know, they are all Christian. So yes they do believe that prayer works and miracles happen. Indeed, inside each facility are devotional messages, Bible passages and pictures that imply that yes, prayer works and God exists. But then, what are all the doctors, nurses, therapists, MAs, unit secretaries, kitchen staff, cleaning staff, facilities staff, materials and supply staff etc doing there? They aren't really necessary are they? Well, not if prayer works at least.
If on the other hand prayer doesn't work, then we'd expect religious hospitals to need all those people and facilities just like non religious ones, wouldn't we? And lo and behold it seems that religious hospitals need all the things that non-religious ones do in order to treat patients. How curious.
Do you need a more damning indictment of the power of prayer? Even Christian hospitals don't trust it.
Where would Jesus make the first incision (WWJMTFI)?
So, here's an image I saw in a religiously affiliated hospital I was working at one day:
And after laughing out loud my next reaction was a mixture of horror, disbelief and fear. Is that really what modern science based medicine passes for in a religious hospital in the 21st century, hoping that Jesus (allegedly a carpenter from 2,000 years ago) is guiding your surgeon's hands? I resolved right there and then to never go to a religious hospital for treatment of any kind as long as I was able to make the choice.
Here are some questions for you - if you think that Jesus is guiding a surgeon's hands then does the surgeon need to go to medical school? If he or she does, why? Surely with faith, prayer and the Son of God on their side anyone can perform surgery? If not, why not? Why do people who work in religious hospitals need medical training?
And here are some other questions. If prayer works, why does Jesus need to use surgery to make someone better? Why does he need to act through a surgeon? Doesn't he do miracles anymore?
Oh, and more importantly - if Jesus is guiding a surgeons hands, who is to blame when surgery goes wrong? Do surgeries go 'wrong', or are they going exactly according to God's plan? Are surgeries in religious hospitals always 100% successful? If not, why not, since Jesus was aiding them? Does Jesus let some surgeries fail and not others? Why? Does Jesus deliberately misguide surgeons who screw up? Who do you sue for malpractice in that case? Should you even sue for malpractice since God was involved?
Do these medical professionals really believe that Jesus is guiding their hand? If so, then isn't that just terrifying? "Doesn't matter what I do or how good I am, Jesus is here with me."
What the hell does a carpenter from the year 33AD know about triple bypass surgery?
If that picture isn't filling you with dread at the thought of treatment in a religious institute that takes that kind of image seriously then you really aren't thinking it through. Or, on the other hand, maybe it is yet another indictment of what people at religious institutes really know about the healing power of faith and prayer.
Now, in trying to answer some of the questions above the religious don't get to redefine what a miracle is. You don't get to claim that modern surgical skills and techniques are miracles, they aren't. To the medically and scientifically illiterate they might look like magic but they are nothing of the sort - they are the product of thousands of years of science, medical experimentation, education and dedication whose origins and justifications can be traced and documented. They have an explanation. Calling them a miracle makes a mockery of the term. It makes the term 'miracle' meaningless.
The religious don't get to co-opt modern medicine for their own purposes.
A statistical case for the non healing power of prayer
So, we have a lot of questions that arise from the idea that prayer and faith can actually physically and/or mentally heal a person. The questions may or may not make people think about the claims that prayer and faith heal. Questions can be ignored or rationalised away. How about cold hard facts?
Well OK, they can be ignored as well, but let's look at some anyway.
First, let's re-state the hypothesis we're examining: Prayer and faith can heal people physically and mentally because God exists and he performs miracles.
If we accept this hypothesis, then there should be some evidence we can look at that supports this. For instance - shouldn't countries with large populations of devout people have healthier populations? Shouldn't countries with more devout people in them have better health and longer lifespans than those with less devout people in them - shouldn't it be healthier to live in a religious nation when compared to a secular one?
Let's take a look.
I started here to try and identify which countries have the most devout populations, and found that religiosity is highest amongst developing nations. Here's the Gallup table showing their results (you can see it better on the Gallup page but click on the table to enlarge):
Pay particular attention to the countries that identify themselves as the most religious and those that identify themselves as the least religious with respect to the hypothesis we are examining. What are your immediate first impressions?
Now, take a look at this table of international life expectancy (note: below I do use a different set of life expectancy figures when comparing developed countries to each other). Notice anything yet? The lowest life expectancy is in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, the highest in Japan, Andorra and San Marino. Unfortunately there is no religiosity data on Mozambique, but Malawi has a life expectancy of 37.6 years and 99% of adults claimed religion is an important part of daily life. Zambia has a life expectancy of 37.2 years and a religiosity of 95%. There is no religiosity data for San Marino or Andorra but the life expectancy of Japan is 80.7 years and there just 24% of people say religion is an important part of their daily lives. All three of the least religious countries on the Gallup poll have a higher life expectancy than the three most religious (in the cases of Denmark and Sweden, much higher).
Which doesn't seem to support the hypothesis that religious faith and prayer can work miracles for public health, does it? Wouldn't we expect that the more devout a population the more healthy it would be, if we accept that prayer and faith actually work to improve health or treat disease?
The obvious objection to this is that there are many other factors involved in the health of a population and this is no doubt borne out by closely examining the data I've so far provided, and my response is: Yes, exactly. Anyone who raises that objection is simply proving my point. If prayer and faith truly had an impact on health, then nothing else matters and the more religious countries should have better health - but overall they clearly don't. In fact, the data suggests that economics, sanitation, infrastructure and a great many other things have a far greater impact than prayer. Clean water has a bigger impact than prayer ever could. And that is my point.
But, let's be fairer to the hypothesis than it seems to deserve, let's compare countries that have more similarities than those at the extremes of developed states versus developing or failed states (even though prayer working or not shouldn't depend on the developmental state of the nation in which the prayee resides, only how devout they are, and nobody who says prayer works qualifies it with "Unless you live in the third world" anyway). And lets add another variable to judging how well prayer and faith work in respect to health care - the average per capita expenditure on health care. Shouldn't we expect more religious states to have to spend less on health care if prayer and faith work in treating medical problems or improving health? So let's include health expenditure as well.
Here are a few pages of data comparing countries with more similarities in terms of their developmental status, including data on states belonging to the OECD.
Starting with the UC Atlas website we see a comparison of life expectancy with per capita expenditure on healthcare in dollars. Taking the 5 countries with the longest life expectancy here (excluding San Marino, Monaco, Australia and Andorra because I didn't have religiosity data for them) we see that, with these figures and highest first, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada and France all have life expectancies between 82 and 79 years. Respectively, they have a religiosity of 24%, 41%, 17%, 42% and 30% (so an average of 30.8%).
The 5 countries (excluding Portugal and Cuba because there was no religiosity data) with the lowest lifespans are (lowest first) Ireland, Cyprus, USA, Denmark and the UK with a life expectancy between 76 and 78. Respectively they have a religiosity of 54%, 75%, 65%, 19% and 27% (so an average of 48%).
Far from conclusive in favour of the hypothesis that prayer and faith somehow improve health one way or the other. Significantly the USA, with its 65% religiosity, has a low life expectancy compared to other developed nations yet spends roughly twice as much per capita on healthcare than most other developed nations. Why would a country with such a large devout population need to spend so much on healthcare if prayer worked, and for such a relatively small gain?
In fact, the second graph on the UC Atlas page suggests that, up to a point, life expectancy has far more in common with money spent on healthcare than religiosity. Why would money have more of an effect than the devout appealing to the Almighty? Unless, of course, prayer doesn't work. The second website, Seeking Alpha shows that the USA spends almost double the average OECD percentage of GDP on healthcare. Why would that be if prayer worked?
Indeed, if prayer doesn't work then the data we have looked at makes perfect sense. However, if you believe prayer does work then the data presents you with a problem - what is going on? How do you explain what we are seeing in the data if prayer works?
If prayer works, then how do you explain the data on the Visual Economics page that shows that the US infant mortality rate (6.8 per 1,000 live births) is almost triple that of Japan (2.8) - 65% religiosity compared to 24% remember? People don't pray for children? God ignores those prayers?
Or maybe, just maybe, prayer doesn't work?
The fact remains that no matter how you look at the data, prayer seems to have no discernible effect on health. The most devout nations are amongst the least healthy and shortest lived in the world when we should expect the exact opposite if prayer worked. Some of the most devout developed nations spend the most on healthcare and still have relatively low lifespans when compared to less devout developed nations, when we should see the exact opposite if prayer works.
Even just within the USA we can see evidence that being devout doesn't significantly help you live longer or healthier - as a group black people are more likely to frequently attend church than white people, yet they still have a lower life expectancy than white people.
As pointed out on Why Won't God Heal Amputees one of the common responses to the questioning of prayer and its effectiveness is that if what was prayed for doesn't happen then it not happening was part of God's Plan. I think it is worth re-iterating the answer to this given over at WWGHA.
If God has a plan for everyone and everything, and has done since the dawn of time, then prayer is pointless. In fact, it is more than pointless, it is asking God to change his plans. Who are you to ask the creator of the Universe to change what he has set in motion? What kind of arrogance is that? If a loved one is sick, if a loved one is dying, then that is what God wanted and the outcome is already determined - it is in the plan remember. Praying is therefore a waste of time and will change nothing. It will accomplish nothing. The way it is is the way God wants it and therefore prayer still does not work because the way it is going to be is also the way God wants it to be.
If God exists, and he has a plan for everyone and everything, prayer does nothing.
And yet the Bible says that prayer does work. How confusing. Either God has a plan and that explains the seemingly inexplicable and arbitrary nature of the success of prayer, which also means prayer is ineffective because outcomes have already been decided by God. Or, the Bible is wrong and if you ask for something in prayer you still might not get it.
How would a believer in the power of prayer explain that?
Prayer simply does not work.
Claiming that prayer works leaves you with so many unanswered questions that your position becomes unsustainable. The evidence presented here and elsewhere shows that prayer doesn't have any discernible or even demonstrable effect on healthcare or medical treatment and it is apparent that, whether they consciously recognise it or not, religiously affiliated medical facilities are, by the simple virtue of their existence, an acknowledgement that prayer doesn't do anything.
Prayer doesn't work. Let's stop pretending it does and do something useful with our time instead.