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?