The Power of Prayer Part 2: Revenge of the Dendrites and Axons

Recently a work colleague sent me an e-mail explaining the reason she had not responded to an earlier request, was because her husband had taken ill and was in the ICU. Most people upon receiving such news, respond by saying “I’ll pray for him,” or “I’ll keep him in my prayers,” or something similar. Hell, many of my critics on this blog, are hell-bent on praying for me, and I’m in good health.

I could have said the same; it would have been totally harmless and my colleague would have been none the wiser as to my atheist status. However, I chose to merely say “I’m holding thumbs for his speedy return to good health,” which is probably worse than praying. Holding thumbs is the South African equivalent of “keeping my fingers crossed” and refers to a superstitious belief that crossing your fingers can miraculously cause a positive event to happen. So upon reflection, I chose to give solace to someone by invoking a lame superstition, which is as ineffectual as praying, but probably the safest thing for me to have done under the circumstances.

Since then I’ve been thinking about why I cannot or won’t casually say “I’ll pray for you,” to make some someone feel better; or even in jest. The thing is prayer is utterly futile; it has never been demonstrated to actually achieve anything, and I’m quite confident it never will.

People tend to ascribe natural positive results to unnatural causes. Clergymen spend their whole career selling this gross untruth. But it’s all about statistics.

More sick people regain their health, than die. The probability that some family member somewhere had prayed for a sick person to get better, is great. So, when the sick person does recover, it is natural for that family member to feel that his or her prayers had worked; and the religious spare no effort in retelling anyone who would listen, how their prayers had worked, when in fact the doctors are the ones who should be doing the boasting.

More people than not, pray every day to win the mega-million dollar lottery. I actually suspect that there are people who pray for this one reason alone. Therefore the chances of someone who had prayed to win the lottery, actually winning it, is quite high. So it would not be surprising if that winner remarked that his “prayers had come true.” There is therefore the likelihood of unlucky people tending to think that prayer works, and their turn will come; they just need to stick to it. The pray-to-win-the-lottery meme tends to grow and spread.

These are just two examples of a sort of confirmation bias – the fallacy of being willing to believe results which seems to confirm your belief, while rejecting other results which do not.

How strange that people are so eager to believe, without proper analysis and thought? And how sad?

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7 thoughts on “The Power of Prayer Part 2: Revenge of the Dendrites and Axons

  1. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that alternate phrases such as “thinking of you”, “sending good thoughts your way”, etc. can often be very upsetting to someone who values prayer. I too, am an athiest and struggle with how to respond to Christians in these types of situations. I don’t particularly want to ignore their plight, but I also don’t want to get into a debate about why I’m not praying for them. I can’t bring myself to offer prayers that I know I’m not going to deliver on. So, I usually say nothing. Not the best answer, but one I will continue to work on.

    • Hi OSJ

      I’ve been in social gatherings where a prayer is said to kick things off, or for some other reason, and even though it made me feel awkward, I “participated” by just keeping silent, but not bowing my head or anything. I think it would be rude to speak out or refuse to participate, or leave the room, even.

  2. Even Atheists and agnostics can appreciate the physiological benefits of prayer/meditation. The heart rate slows, the mind eases and concentration is enhanced, all good things in my opinion. I don’t see harm in believing these physiological benefits exist from participating in prayer or meditation if there are facts to support it. These benefits are only for the person who prays, or meditates, and I can find no evidence that the benefits can be transferred to another person by just praying for them although if it puts you at ease, it might calm others in the immediate vicinity of you. I, being from the US often say, “I’ll keep you in my thoughts” to avoid any religious connotations but to allow the person to know I care without forcing any belief on them. It might be worth a try. 🙂

    • Hi Dawn

      You’re the second person I’ve come accross recently [my uncle being the other one], who equates prayer to meditation. I can appreciate that meditation has benefits, but prayer?

      If anything, prayer increases stress, especially as the person who prays (usually for something tangible) realises that his/her prayers are not being answered. It may just lead to more praying and subsequently more disappointment. Don’t you think?

      “I’ll keep you in my thoughts” sounds like a good compromise. I’ll try that the next time, thanks.

  3. Pingback: Experience of illness and disability | Health and Fitness Product Reviews and Reports

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