This just in…prayer doesn’t work.

December 6, 2007 | By | 28 Replies More

While doing the research for my previous post, A Slaughterhouse of One’s Own: A community confronts Santeria, I came across several explanations of exactly how animal sacrifice works in this religion, physically and metaphorically speaking.

The animal is bound and its throat is cut. The carotid artery is sliced with a ceremonial knife and the blood of the animal is drained from its body in the belief that,

…the energy contained in blood of an animal sacrifice opens a channel of direct communication with the Orishas.

(Orishas are the multitude of gods that represent various aspects of life, much as in the Hindu pantheon or the Christian saints.)

The question that first occurred to me when I read this was “Who figured this out?”

I mean, there is no Santeria “bible”, it’s an oral tradition. Someone somewhere in Africa got it in her head that the blood of animals somehow “speaks” to her God and she was persuasive enough to convince others that it was true. So persuasive in fact, that people are still doing it to this day just because a teacher tells them to, even though there is no “written word of God” to back her up.

The original priestess of Santeria must have been wishing really hard for something big and when she killed a goat her wish came true. She deduced that it was the killing that caused the good thing to happen and I can only assume she followed that up with more killing and more good luck.

The second thought that occurred to me was, “How do they know it still works?”

For that matter, how does anyone who prays know that their message is reaching God and that God will act on their request? In a recent scientific study it was proven that prayer is usless from a medical standpoint.

Distant prayer and the bedside use of music, imagery and touch (MIT therapy) did not have a significant effect upon the primary clinical outcome observed in patients undergoing certain heart procedures, researchers at Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI), Duke University Medical Center, the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) and seven other leading academic medical institutions across the U.S. have found.

“Prayers for the sick and healing-touch are among the most widely practiced healing traditions around the world,” said Mitchell Krucoff, MD, interventional cardiologist at Duke and lead author of the study. “As widespread as these practices are, few rigorous studies exist to explain any mechanism of action or reliable measures of safety or effectiveness. While many of us are fascinated culturally or philosophically with the mystery of healing and prayer, for the practice of medicine we need to understand these phenomena with data-driven insight.”

I’m sure this is old news for regular readers of DI, but I decided to conduct a personal (i.e. anecdotal, unscientific) experiment of my own. So that I couldn’t be accused of persecuting anyone’s religion, I decided to put my own family’s faith in the spotlight. (I was raised Roman Catholic.)

I thought back over the years to the many times that members of my family were in major medical distress and we prayed for help. Did it work? Let’s see…

Great Aunt Mary: Cancer.

Her sisters, my grandmother included, were avid churchgoers all their lives. They prayed for Mary for many months as she suffered with her disease.

Result: Aunt Mary died.

Cousin Jeremy: Because he was born with a heart defect Josh needed periodic surgeries to expand his chest cavity to accommodate the growing organ. At 12 years of age during one such operation his body became wracked with infection. Our family prayed for him.

Result: Jeremy died.

Baby Jake: My sister’s son became feverish and was diagnosed with meningitis. We were all asked to pray for him.

Result: Jake got better.

Lynne: My cousin’s wife was 37 years old with three small children when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. We prayed like we’d never prayed before.

Result: Lynne died.

Rose: The 38 year old sister of a close friend discovered a tumor on her spine. She was a single mother of a small daughter. His family and my family both prayed for her.

Result: Rose died.

That’s 1 out of 5. Pretty lousy track record if you ask me.

What did we do wrong? Are we a bad family whose members deserve to die painful tragic deaths? As far as I can tell we are no better or worse than anyone else.

I wonder if the practitioners of Santeria fare better statistically than Catholics. Even the proverbial flip of the coin, 50/50, would be a big improvement! I’d like to know because if draining the blood from a screaming animal can increase my odds of getting what I want and save my family from untimely death…I’m joining!


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Culture, Good and Evil, History, Meaning of Life, Noteworthy, Religion, Uncategorized

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Mike Pulcinella is a documentary filmmaker.

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  1. Alison says:

    Prayer is just wishful thinking. In one form or another, we use it when we have no control over an outcome and wish we did, or feel we should do something to affect an outcome but know we can't. Used to influence things outside of ourselves, it's clearly useless, but we like to think it does something because then we can pretend we had something to do with a positive outcome in the end. I don't equate this with the kind of introspective self-talk we use to give ourselves emotional support. It may seem like prayer to say to ourselves "God, help me to stay on my diet tonight," and feel like it worked when you didn't have any chocolate cake. It may seem like prayer to set your intention in yoga class to bring a new job your way, and the energies of the universe helped you ace that afternoon's interview. This is you giving yourself the focus you need to keep your goals in the forefront of your mind so you can keep the attitude you need to achieve them. If this type of prayer succeeds, it is not because prayer itself is effective.

    I know people who belong to churches and go through all the motions, but don't swallow all the dogma. I know people who have some pretty nontheistic beliefs that they try to reconcile with all kinds of reality. I know more people who will pray or meditate or "send out energy" than those who won't, and it all stems from hopefulness that they, although helpless to change anything, will be able to somehow make a difference. Is it silly? Well, kind of, but it's far from odd. Is it effective? No, but it's better than shrugging something off and saying "Well, good luck with that. Seeya later." And for the most part, it's harmless.

    Where it is harmful is when it is used by unscrupulous people to benefit themselves – as in the wealthy preachers promising things they can't deliver in exchange for the money of those who can't afford to spend it. (Or the ridiculous costs of classes in how to "master" various spiritual techniques for healing that are ineffective, as well.) When it is also harmful is when it is used in place of action by people who actually have the power to effect change. It is harmful for Bush to pray for peace, while doing nothing to end his war. It is harmful for the Pope to pray for an end to pedophilia while allowing pedophiles to hide in his church. It is harmful to pray for an end to abortion after inciting violent anger towards people who perform it.

    As long as we believe that prayer is effective, we're giving the people who use the harmful kind a get-out-of-jail-free card. As long as they're praying, they're at least doing something. As long as they're praying, their intentions are good. As long as they're praying, there's a possibility that it might happen. This is when prayer is dangerous, but as long as we all believe that it's effective, this won't change. In order to force those who pray for an outcome while acting to obstruct that outcome, we have to accept prayer for what it really is – wishful thinking – and make people accountable for their own actions.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Alison writes, "Prayer is just wishful thinking."

    For the true believer, prayer also has a placebo effect, making it, arguably, more than just wishful thinking. Of course, it's still not what the believer believes or hopes it to be — viz., an invocation of divine power — but it can, in a sense, have a "real" impact on the person's life. Of course, praying to Thor, Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster will be no more or less effective, it just depends on what the person believes.

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