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Nothing Fails Like Prayer

Entry 2051, on 2020-06-30 at 14:25:43 (Rating 3, Religion)

On March 18 2020 the Pope announced that he would ask God to stop the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately for him, that was roughly the day that the rate of new infections started increasing exponentially. Maybe it would have been better if he had just stayed silent. Apparently God must have misheard him and instead of stopping the pandemic he started it spreading even faster.

But what good is religion if the leader of the biggest church in the world can't do anything about the biggest threat facing humanity today? And this is not a threat which only affects bad people, or irreligious people, or any group where we might say they deserve the suffering this disease brings. In fact, less privileged groups seem to be affected more. Sure, there are international travellers - including those poor victims on cruise ships - who are more affected because of their affluent lifestyles, but in general it is the poor who are suffering disproportionately.

It seems to be that this is completely contrary to what we might expect based on the commonly accepted message of Jesus. He was a defender of the poor and weak in society. And he claimed that subservience to his leadership would bring protection and other benefits. Apparently not.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but I would say there are no believers in a health crisis. Both of these statements are literally wrong, of course, because there are both atheists in foxholes and believers in health crises, but there is a wider point to be made here.

Let's examine these claims. First, there are no atheists in foxholes. This is saying that when a person is in imminent danger and under attack from the enemy (presumably sheltering in a foxhole) they might be tempted to pray to a god they have previously rejected. I'm sure that happens, but I also know some people refuse to succumb to superstition no matter how great the danger is. So there are atheists in foxholes. In fact, there are several organisations with that name for atheists in the military, and numerous personal narratives from people in extreme danger who maintained a strict atheistic attitude.

And the opposite also applies. There are many believers who refuse the assistance of science when they are in a situation of obvious harm. There are many stories of highly religious people refusing scientifically based ways to avoid coronavirus. And there are many who have gone on to catch the disease, and some who have died.

So it might seem that the two situations are equivalent: the refusal of atheists to accept the help of a higher power, and the refusal of religious people to accept science-based solutions and to rely on faith instead.

But, of course, they aren't equivalent. Belief in a god, and attempts at summoning help through prayer never works, except perhaps to make the person feel a little bit better because they are doing something in a situation where there might not be other options. So you might say a "placebo effect" of sorts is in action here. And relying on divine help often leads to the person not seeking other solutions which might be more efficacious. We constantly hear stories of people dying from preventable diseases because they preferred faith healing to real medical treatments, for example.

So prayer is an epic failure in every way (except the occasional success through the placebo effect). I was going to say that any other belief which failed so badly would be rejected, but that actually isn't true. There are many other completely ineffective beliefs which have not been abandoned: homeopathy immediately comes to mind, but there are many others. So exclusively picking on religious people and their faith in prayer is unfair.

So I'm not sure what the Pope was thinking when he announced that attempted request for help from God, and I don't know what he is thinking now that it has so epically failed. Maybe he has fallen back on those old standard excuses: God works in mysterious ways and we can never understand his actions, or we haven't tried hard enough to please him so we don't deserve his help, or God gave us free will and diseases are just part of that.

If these are the sorts of excuses he finds himself accepting you really do have to wonder at his degree of sophistication in the understanding of basic philosophy and theology. He is an intelligent person, so you might also wonder if maybe a small amount of doubt creeps into his mind. God says he will help if we pray. We need help. We pray. But there's just no response. It's like a supernatural version of "your call has been disconnected", or "your call is important to us, please hold", followed by endless musac.

You also wonder about other religious leaders who claim they are protected from the virus through the power of Jesus, then go on to catch it, and die in some cases. How do they (and their family in the case of the fatalities) justify that failure? Presumably they just fall back on the same old banal excuses I mentioned above. At least you can partly understand that in relatively unsophisticated people.

But the Pope? Surely he must have some doubts by now, because nothing fails like prayer.

Postscript: While I indicated above that prayer is highly unlikely to be effective for anything, I still think it is worth testing its efficacy. So, a physician in Kansas City who wonders whether prayer might make a difference, and who launched a scientific study to find out, gets my support. Looking at the description of his methodology it looks OK superficially, so this is potentially a useful contribution. Other similar studies have given negative results, so I don't have much hope for a positive outcome, but I disagree with the commentators who are condemning the idea. It's a hypothesis which can be tested using properly blinded experiments, so why not?

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