Prayer: a great cure for impotence

| April 17, 2007 | 14 Replies

A friend called me recently.  The doctor just found a “suspicious” lump and scheduled a biopsy. As you can imagine, she is anxious that she might have cancer.

What can a good agnostic say to such a person? Consider these options:

  • I’m worried about you.
  • Rest assured that I’m hoping for the best.
  • I’ll be thinking about you every hour . . .
  • Well, maybe you don’t have cancer, so you might be OK.
  • I’m glad you have a good doctor who will give you excellent medical care.

Now compare the above impotent responses to the following (add reverb for effect when you read these out loud):

  • I will pray long and often to almighty God to ask Him to intervene to protect you from anything harmful.
  • I will ask God to see that you are healed promptly.
  • [or even this!] Keep in mind that this life on Earth is temporary for all of us.  But we will be together in heaven forever and I will keep praying for you.

Promising to pray makes it appear that one is really doing something.  It would certainly be much more satisfying to both me and to my friend I I could honestly tell her that I was doing something rather than settling for the agnostic version of prayer (i.e., “I hope it isn’t cancer” or “Would you like to talk about your upcoming biopsy over dinner?”).

The false efficacy of prayer plays into one of the great fallacies of our time, that action—any kind of action—is progress.   Any action is progress.  False logic like this is often employed in our world.  For instance, any action is progress causes many people to believe that any military action (even when the US attacked Iraq–the wrong country–and thereby created huge numbers of new enemies) was appropriate following the 9/11 attacks.  Similarly, when one prays (which has never been scientifically proven to be effective at thwarting disease), one feels like one is doing something, implying progress. 

I admit that it would feel better to call on God, the ultimate bodyguard, to fight off my friend’s possible cancer.  I know that it would be satisfying to believe in prayer. I used to say prayers when I was a young child who was forced to go to church.   I was half-convinced that I was doing something to end world hunger by praying.  Or that I was increasing my odds of doing well on a test at school.  I think I believed in prayer as a result of watching my mother, who prayed that the car would start on cold days (and it often did). If a “Hail, Mary” didn’t turn over the V-8 engine of that big Oldsmobile, she pulled out the big artillery: she switched to “Our Fathers.”

My friend who is facing the biopsy is a church-going friend who has many theist friends.  They have undoubtedly already told her that they will pray for her. I’m sure that these promises bring my friend great satisfaction.   And all I can do is to sit around hoping and fretting for her.

How nice it would be to have prayer in one’s arsenal.  I’m jealous.

This psychological feeling that we are doing something about problems we can’t really affect is only one of the many psychological benefits of prayer.  Here are some of the other benefits of praying:

  • Prayer as Meditation
  • Prayer as giving one’s self silence and space
  • Prayer as an opportunity to think through real world problems.
  • Prayer as a means of giving one’s self comfort and protection from future fears
  • Prayer as a cure for loneliness.  Prayer gives one a guaranteed friendship with God or the angels.  No matter how dysfunctional you are, those imaginary beings will stay with you.
  • Prayer as a means of control over things that annoy or scare us.

Interestingly, the psychological relief that one actually receives when one prays for any of the above reasons does not require that God really exists.  One can get lots of benefits from believing in prayer and praying, even if prayer doesn’t really cause a God to intervene in the physical world. 

And here’s one additional thing that might be the most compelling reason of all to pray.  Sometimes, while spending quality time with my two young daughters, it occurs to me that they will get old and die, just like me.  Worse yet, there will likely be a long period during which they will continue living while I am dead and gone, and I will be completely unable to assist them in their moments of need.  These are disorienting, intensely distressing thoughts.  They expose me to be the utterly helpless being that I am. 

Prayer to the rescue!  Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do something about being separated from my daughters?  Who wouldn’t jump at a chance like that?  “Dear God:  please allow me to be with my daughters in heaven someday, where we’ll be reunited for eternity.” 

Ah, there . . . Now that’s better than doing nothing, right?  If only I could really believe in an imaginary being who would intervene to grant my wishes.

Prayer is a strong tonic that really seems to work as a result of belief in prayer.  To make prayer “work,” one must take a big leap of faith. The risks we face as mortal beings constitute a type of terror that drives us to believe in whatever might work, whether or not it actually works.

I wish I believed in God sometimes, because I would love to have something to offer my friends who are facing problems I am otherwise helpless to solve.   I wish I had control over things that are actually out of my control.  I wish the most powerful person in the universe served as my powerful genie, granting me lots of wishes.  Assuming that the traditionally portrayed God existed, I wish I were smart enough to tell Omniscence what to do.

But I know better, so I can’t believe in God or prayer.  I can only hope that my anxious friends forgive me when I have nothing to offer them except impotent excuses such as “I hope things come out OK.”

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Category: Culture, Good and Evil, Health, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. What can an atheist say to a grieving friend? : Dangerous Intersection | March 20, 2012
  1. Boelf says:

    I have to agree that when friends say they will pray for me over some problem me or my family is having the sentiment is appreciated, more so than "good luck with that". Mind you "is there anything I can do to help?" is better yet.

    For most of your other points prayer is either not helpful or an impediment:

    Meditation You can and should meditate without pretending to have a conversation with an invisible person.

    giving one’s self silence and space I'm not sure what your getting at here unless it is the right to tell intruders "leave me alone, I'm praying".

    think through real world problems. Unless your praying all the time your writing your blog I think you have to agree that praying doesn't help.

    comfort and protection from future fears Only the most deluded would realize such comfort. The most holy and prayerful routinely suffer misfortune no less frequently than anyone else. The only comfort to be had is to understand the reality of the fear, its likelihood and what realistic measures might mitigate it.

    cure for loneliness. Would talking to yourself count?

    control over things that annoy or scare us. See "fear" above.

    there will likely be a long period during which they will continue living while I am dead and gone, and I will be completely unable to assist them in their moments of need.

    This is where being an atheist is an actual advantage. You take care of your daughters when your not there (even before your dead) by giving your daughters the tools now that they will need to be happy and prosper. You are not caught up in the fantasy that you will be able to take care of them from heaven after your gone.

    Hope I'm not coming across as argumentative. Just some thoughts your post called to mind.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    When Christians says they will pray for me, I usually perceive this as an expression of deep concern coupled with an aknowledgement that they are powerless to directly influence the outcome.

  3. Erika Price says:

    I really like that Boelf mentioned "Is there anything I can do to help?" as an alternative. Better than well-wishing, better than promising an empty action, asking if you can assist the person in a tangible way actually shows you care. You can promise to pray for someone, and that lets you off the hook. But committing to help, even if the person doesn't make use of it, actually can achieve something.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    So, that is why believers pray. The notion of prayer as *doing something* means that prayer is ultimately not about the believer getting his god to do something, it is about the believer, himself, feeling that *he* is doing something. How very nice of the believer's god to satisfy the *believer's* desire to feel useful, even when he is not.

  5. Tim Hogan says:

    I have frequently offered my friends, and sometimes acquaintances, help when they are in need. My operating theory is that if their need is greater than mine, do it. Most frequently my friends decline, acquaintances are amused and both, more often than not, just ask me for prayers to help them through their difficulties.

    Prayer isn't for self-satisfaction, nor for getting out of "real" help. Prayer is a way to create a sense of shared community and support for each other so as to divide sorrows and multiply joys. I'm sure there have been medical studies to show that some patient support system is better for recovery than none at all. Perhaps prayer is such a support system.

  6. Ben says:

    Please consider me to be actually praying for your soul anytime you see me slander Christianity, Tim. This goes for any other believers who I may rub the wrong way. Like I have said before, I am still a Good christian, even though I don't believe in God anymore.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Tim is undoubtedly correct. Medical patients who have support structures tend to have better outcomes than those who don't and, indeed, prayer is one such support structure. However, despite two millenia of prayer to the Christian god (for example), no valid scientific studies have demonstrated such prayer to be any more beneficial than secular support structures or prayers to other gods. Christians (for example) get sick and die with the same regularity that non-Christians do — except, of course, for sects that actually engage in healthier living practices.

    To learn more about the power of prayer, read this post: http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=449/.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    One cartoonist’s assumption of God at work: http://i.imgur.com/dU7kk.jpg

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    “I’ll pray for you.” Translation: “I want the best for you as long as it takes no effort on my behalf.” (from a post on Facebook)

  10. Mike M. says:

    Erich: I’ll take it one step further. Call me a cynic, but I strongly suspect that the majority of people who say or write, “I’ll pray for you/him/her/it”, or “You’re in my prayers”, never actually perform the promised prayer. They are empty words, and insincere false offers which are redeemed only by any solace they instill in those vulnerable and hurting people they are directed towards.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mike M.: I suspect you are correct. Wouldn’t you love to be the bug on the wall, to following around 1,000 people who publicly claim to pray a lot, to see whether they actually pray in private? Humans are walking talking PR machines. Millions of us claim that we don’t overeat, but we carry around public lie detectors (our big bellies), so we know that they aren’t telling the truth (even though we convince ourselves that we aren’t lying. There’s no public lie-detector for those who claim to pray a lot in private, at least none that I know of.

  11. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I know I will get a lot of flack from this, but I’ll post it anyway. Under certain restricted conditions, prayer may actually help someone recover from an illness.
    The conditions are:

    1. The patient is a true believer,
    2. The patient knows or believes people are praying for him.
    3. The patient is under long term emotionally stress.

    It is well known that stress suppresses the immune system. Adrenalin triggers a cascade of hormone release as part of the “fight or flight” response and when these hormones are present over a long term problems ensue.

    A depletion of energy storage
    High blood pressure
    Effects on metabolic processes
    Increased likelihood of infectious diseases.
    Increased risk of some types of cancer (e.g. Karposi’s sarcoma).

    People with chronic illnesses who have lost hope of recovery, particularly those who have a great fear of death (fear of death is often cultivated in religious belief systems) can have a very dysfunctional immune system.

    So the emotional stress experienced by a religious patient will adversely impact the patient’s recovery, and reduction or removal of emotional stress, can, in marginal cases, tip recovery chances toward a positive outcome. On the flip side, religious patients who believe they are beyond redemption may actually see an decrease in their recovery chances.

    Cognitive biases reinforce the belief in faith based “miraculous” recoveries.

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