Friday, June 6, 2014

Health and Prayer II - Why God still can't lose

I had a reply posted to a blog I wrote some time ago that I didn't feel I could do justice to in just the comments, so here's the full on reply.

The original post was one I made about the myth that prayer heals, and how patently ridiculous such an assertion is in the face of our need for modern evidence based medicine, you can find that here. The comment came here. I'll call the commenter littleinions in reference to the pseudonym they entered there.

The comment is, I think, a perfect example of what I was referring to in the original post - the "God can't lose" concept. That is to say, the seemingly miraculous is attributed to God and he gets all the credit for it, even in the face of the suffering that may have occurred. For example, God gets credit for saving one person in a plane crash and is praised for his miracle, but doesn't take the blame for the 250 other people who died in the same crash. If saving one is to God's credit, what is letting the others die? God can't lose because the majority of believers will then say they weren't meant to be saved, didn't pray hard enough or it wasn't part of the plan etc - God can't lose because only the good stuff is attributed to him - the bad stuff is rationalized away, but whatever the rationalization is, it is not God.

Carry this into health care though, and we often have people attribute someone's recovery from ill health to God and prayer or miracles - not to medical treatment and care, misdiagnosis or spontaneous remission. Yet, as I point out in the original post, if prayer really worked in the way that the religious claim we wouldn't have need of hospitals or evidence based medical care for two main reasons:

  1. Nobody prays to become sick. People pray for good health and a long life - they don't pray to have a serious accident or incurable disease. If prayer worked no one would ever be sick - except I suppose the non-religious or non-devout, who either don't pray at all or don't pray enough (whatever that limit is).
  2. If people were sick or injured then if prayer worked those illnesses or injuries would be immediately rectified or cured upon those people praying - nobody prays to continue to be sick or injured, they pray to be cured or to recover. If prayer worked they would not therefore need medical treatment and in countries where the religious are present in great numbers hospitals need not exist. This is demonstrably not true.
Further to these two points is the obvious one that the website Why Won't God Heal Amputees? makes. People who lose limbs, or who are born without them, never have those limbs come back despite praying for exactly that to happen. If prayer works, then why won't God heal amputees?

Now, on to the reply.

First, let me say that I am assuming for the most part that what littleinions wrote in the comment is on the surface generally true and accurate. I personally doubt this because there is a lot that doesn't add up (for instance - they appear to be subsistence farmers but can freely roam the world and the USA and visit multiple specialist surgeons/doctors), but for the sake of argument I will assume it is true as written.

I have a little boy whom we adopted w/ CP and cortical blindness. We took him to specialist in Chicago and in Philly. We were told he was "permanently blind. God alone healed our son. We were also told he would be in a wheel chair and would not be able to sit up or walk. Apart from medical services, God healed our son. Today he sees and runs.
I am assuming that CP means Cerebral Palsy, given the reference to cortical blindness (the two can occur together). First, let me point out two things. Cerebral Palsy is recognized to sometimes be misdiagnosed, as shown in the medical and scientific literature. Second, partial vision recovery is also not unknown  in cases of Cortical Vision Impairment. So right away we have two possible explanations for your "miracle" that don't have to posit the existence of an almighty and for which there is plenty of medical evidence. Yet, you claim this could only be down to God. Well, you are wrong, there are other explanations - you choose merely to believe it was God and ignore the far more likely explanations for which we have evidence.

Also, what does "apart from medical services" mean? Do you mean he was receiving treatment and medical care? But the improvement in his condition is attributed by you only to God? 

Then, how much of what you write is accurate - memory is fallible. Were you told he was blind, or might be partially blind? Were you told he would definitely be in a wheelchair, or he might one day be in a wheelchair? As a parent myself I know what happens when you hear a doctor say there might be a serious health issue with your child, as you will soon see.

I have a little girl born w. DS. We adopted her from India. A cardiologist at the Hershey hospital found a hole in her heart that needed repair. We prayed. Many people prayed. We went for a second opinion and the hole could not be found. We returned to Hershey, her cardio (not a man of faith) said there was no logical explanation for her miraculous healing. 
I am assuming here that DS means Down Syndrome, the existence of which alone provides ample evidence that prayer does not cure medical conditions or illness, incidentally. Did it not occur to you that the hole in the heart was misdiagnosed? Here's one anecdotal example that shows this can easily be the case. One doctor diagnoses a hole in the heart, another says there isn't one. No miracle, just a fallible doctor making a difficult but mistaken diagnosis. Why do you have to leap to miracle or God when there is a much more simple suggestion? You yourself go on to to say that doctors are not infallible, so why would it not occur to you that the first one made a mistake?

Yet, even if the first doctor was right, we also know that a hole in the heart can close on its own. So, no miracle explanation necessary, and apparently that cardiologist may need to go back to school - I'd find a new doctor if he really thinks that there was "no logical explanation" because he apparently doesn't know that much about his field of expertise, but does seem very good at rationalizing his mistakes in a way that stops you from filing a malpractice suit.

And now allow me to throw my own anecdote in. My youngest was found by his family doctor to have a heart murmur, and he referred us to a pediatric cardiologist. The cardiologist also heard the heart murmur when doing a physical exam, but this time only if my son was positioned in a certain way. So he did an EKG and that wasn't conclusive, but he told us "He might have a hole in his heart, but it isn't likely and I don't think he does, we need to do an ultrasound to be sure." - or words to that effect - He said that he might have a hole in the heart but it wasn't likely - but I freaked out like only a parent can when they hear that. The doctor was clear it was a slim possibility - but I immediately jumped to "He has a hole in his heart, this is bad. Really bad." The next 40 minutes while they prepared and performed, then analyzed the results of, the ultrasound were the longest of my life. But the results were negative AND no subsequent doctor has ever heard the heart murmur. Subsequently, in the light of there being no danger and talking over the whole thing with my wife (who is medically trained and was also there) it was clear the doctor didn't think there was a hole - but I was convinced there was even though the doctor never said there was.

So how sure are you that you heard what you relay here? And how sure are you that the first diagnosis was right and not in fact a misdiagnosis?

A hole in the heart in a child is not easy to diagnosis, can be misdiagnosed AND can heal by itself. But you immediately leap to "God did it." Why? The other explanations are far more satisfactory and require less by way of assumption and we have ample actual evidence in favour of them.

I am reading your article now as my own infant son recovers from heart surgery. He had an amazing team of doctors. You asked why should they go to school at all...We do not believe in fatalism or that God some how comes down and "makes the first inscision.." Nor do we dare believe that a doctor is infallible. I would never choose such an arrogant man to operate on my son. His surgeon, of 30 years is both excellent, well-qualified and humble enough to recognize that after all these years he is dependent on the creator of life. There is a limit to what man can do.
I am sincerely glad the surgery went well and your son is recovering, I hope all is well in the future. 

However, all this comment proves is simply that you missed my point entirely. If prayer works, your surgeon would not need to go to school because firstly your son would not have been sick in the first place, and secondly if he was sick, then prayer alone should have cured him and not a team of skilled and dedicated medical professionals. You didn't pray for him to be sick, but have you prayed that your children never become sick? So why didn't that work? Why did God cure your other children but not this one - why did he decide to let this one go to surgery? Seems a little cruel and arbitrary, doesn't it?

If prayer worked we wouldn't need surgeons, we would just need devout people to pray. Prayer would cure the sick, not medicine and surgery. But it doesn't - if it did your son would not have needed surgery. Don't thank God, thank the medical team. The surgeon didn't depend on anyone but himself, those who taught him and those who assisted him.

Now, I note again that you both recognize here that doctors are limited and fallible, yet at the same time seem to believe they MUST have been absolutely right when they diagnosed the problems with your other children that later weren't there. Why?

Doctors are either limited and capable of mistakes, or they are always right - which is it?

My own experience

In my job I am required to go in and out of a lot of different hospitals - many of them are in fact affiliated with Christian organisations. Now, why would Christian organisations need hospitals if prayer actually works? Doesn't the fact that there are Christian organisations running hospitals actually just prove that prayer doesn't work and that God doesn't cure sick people?

I can tell you right now, when I go into Children's Hospital, or when I go into the oncology units in other facilities, I see a lot of sick people that prayer has done nothing for because they are still sick or dying.

Don't tell me no-one prays hard enough for those kids, or that your kids deserved it more for some reason.

If prayer works, how can this be? How can there be sick children anywhere?

All of this just leads me to ask some questions of you:


  1. Why do you thank God for fixing the problems, but not blame him for allowing them in the first place?
  2. Why doesn't God heal everyone who prays or is prayed for?
  3. Why doesn't God heal amputees?
  4. Why does God allow illness in the first place, but only get credit for healing or curing it and not causing it?
  5. Why would God heal your children but not others?
  6. Why do we need medical treatment at all if prayer works?


  1. Hi Jimmy, sorry to write off topic to this particular post but I just tracked you down from another piece I found on google that you wrote a few years ago. It was a blog on debunking 'The secret' by Rhonda Byrne.

    I just wanted to let you know how good it felt to see someone write what you did as that book really tripped me out. I was at a vulnerable point in my life and that movie/book had me sold. I decided to adopt the 'law of attraction' mindset. Even though it never felt quite right as I knew bad things happen to good people.. Etc.. Basically I was confused but I went with it.. The whole 'manifest and create your own reality, you can have whatever you want, dreams can come true (and all that shit)

    I got diagnosed with schizophrenia about a year later, after what was basically a psychotic meltdown. I am no longer experiencing mental illness as I am better now but still coming out of a huge trip and looking back I think this delusional stuff really contributed to the confusion and suffering.

    Also I got bullied once pretty badly and my friend (whos into this kind of stuff told me I was relating in some way to the bullying. My vibration was attracting it somehow. I remember this just made me feel worse as I was a nice person not being mean to anyone else, just trying to do the right thing).

    Seeing someone stand up and say what you did really has reaffirmed that my instincts are correct and that it was like someone sold me a horrific illusion that fucked with my head. Reality is the most healing thing, not some trippy stuff like that :(

    I just loved your no nonsense writing that's what I needed to hear. Thank you for understanding and caring about people like me.

    Keep up the good work. And now that I have just created a new blog page myself I might add you to my circle or whatever it's called.


    1. Kate, thank you so much for your kind words - most people just find what I write angry and offensive! To be honest, the reason I haven't really blogged for a few years now is because I didn't think anything I wrote mattered or made a difference - I can't stop the tide coming in - so hearing that it helped support you or give some affirmation to your own instincts, in even a tiny way, is ... humbling, to say the least.

      Made my morning actually.

      But, if you really want to see the Secret and all similar scams taken to task you should take a look at the blog Spirituality is No Excuse because Yakaru's writing and research is a lot better, and more comprehensive, than mine.

      I'm glad you managed to find help and treatment when you needed it and you're right, there's no substitute for reality!

      All the best,

  2. I think you should keep writing. You have great skill for it. I like your assertiveness and you are clearly intelligent!
    Thank you for the link, I will have a look. :) Kate